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Bring Us The Successor To Jerry Garcia
by Bob Gulla
Guitar World, National
Sep 1st, 1996



When Jerry Garcia died last August he left for the taking a peculiar legacy. Riddled with effects of acid blots, debauchery and too much tie-dye-nostalgic carryovers from the Summer of Love, Garcia played guitar often and brilliantly, despite the LSD highs which seemed to constantly mush his brain. Largely, if not completely, due to those intense highs, the Dead became a premier live act, a major jam outfit prone to outrageous flights of lysergic and psychedelic fancy. As an improviser, Garcia, along with Bob Weir, showed intense versatility, bleeding country into blues into jazz, and demonstrated an indescribable ability to fill drawn-out instrumental breaks with provocative, mind-bending guitar work.

Soon, the Dead became rock and roll's ultimate jam band.

Today, the improvisation-jamming-banner still flies overhead, thanks to Jerry and his hippie friends; it's now as close to the mainstream as it'll ever get. Though he was virtually unheralded in the technical community, Garcia proved it possible for skilled players outside of the jazz genre to jam, even wank, and still sound like there's something of import soaring from their fingers. Today, a clutch of chart-bound guitarists have picked up the gauntlet laid down by Garcia before he died. All quality young players rapidly developing styles of their own, all aspirants - consciously or not - to the throne vacated by the death of Jerome John Garcia.

BLUES TRAVELER

With the recent sonic document, Live From The Fall, Blues Traveler's Chan Kinchla makes a convincing argument that he indeed is on the short list of quality pop rock jammers. In trading licks with harpist John Popper on so many of that set's "call and response" or "one-upsmanship" jams, Kinchla holds his own against the dazzling Popper (himself a skilled improviser), with stylish solos of power and dexterity. The album, too, proves that the band goes well beyond a few snappy hit singles, choosing instead to present a totally different and more ferocious incarnation of themselves live.

"The live thing is what got us together to begin with," says Kinchla, 27. "It's the foundation of the band." To establish themselves as marquee jammers, the band played night after night for years in bars up and down the eastern seaboard. "Like anything, the more you do it, the more the practice really helps. A lot of time bands just want to present their album onstage instead of putting on a real live show."

Not so for Blues Traveler, who deign to show their audiences the true heart of the band. "The magic and the real key to instrumental playing is to really get out and do it in front of people," says Kinchla. "It's the interaction with the crowd that makes it so unique every night. Doing it in the garage makes you too self-serving and you start whacking off. But with the crowd there, you can draw on that energy and that's part and parcel of the way we like to play. Even if it's at a friend's keg party or in a bar in front of two people, just get out there. You have to be conscious of them and it guides your playing to a much higher level."

Okay, so call the H.O.R.D.E. tour a gigantic keg party. After all, those are the mega-crowds that Kinchla and Popper feed off of daily. "It's a totally rare energy that brings you to a higher place," he says. "We're good at focusing that energy [from the audience] in and getting everyone's attention. So when you have the whole crowd focused on you it raises you up beyond what you could do on your own. That's what that 'rush' onstage is all about. That's what's kept us touring for the better part of seven years."

Compiling Live From The Fall, the audio document encapsulating those seven years on the road, took Kinchla and the band days to sift through the tapes to find the handful of jams that would make it to record. It was a revealing process. "We had never analyzed our playing to that extent, and it helped us improve our live shows," he says, explaining that they often listened to 12 or more versions of the same song to find the ultimate rendition. "Every now and then you catch fire on certain songs; sometimes they're not the cleanest takes but there's passion and energy. (Hell, you can save the clean stuff for the studio.) Sometimes there was a lot of passion and a lot of mistakes, which is ok live because people forgive you for that. So passion was the one important criterion. We'd try to find the cleaner ones that didn't have too many car wrecks. 'Cause listening back, I tell you, we crashed all the time and I'm thinking, 'God, we suck.'" Most of those wrecks occur with the beefy Popper, a harpist whose solos don't quite compare to any other sound. "The harp is based on the pentatonic scale," says Kinchla, "and John has to bend to get out of that range, so his phrasing and intervals are different than a guitar's. So you have to learn to stay away from things the harp can't do or what I can't do with him. Sometimes it comes out a clutter of notes, which can be fun, too, if you do it right."

Kinchla first picked up the guitar 15 years ago, at the age of 12. Though like other young players he cut his teeth on punk, classic, and all that other "chord guitar," he didn't discover his abilities until he moved to New York City and found jazz, funk and R&B. "I started doing old school stuff and the jazz and bebop phrasing opened up a lot of my phrasing from the standard rock era. That phrasing can take you a long way in improvisation. If you have that [bebop] flow in your head then it comes out in different places in your playing. I don't think I could play stone-cold bebop but I could fake it pretty convincingly."

Does Blues Traveler, like the Grateful Dead, inspire their jams with artificial stimulants? "We enjoy a good party like anybody," laughs Kinchla. "But [Popper] doesn't drink or do anything, I like a few drinks onstage but never before a show. It's all fairly sober. If you get too drunk you forget the song, so we scare ourselves into sobriety. We used to smoke pot, but once we decided to take pride in our live show we gave that up. Of course, there's plenty of time after the show for having fun."