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Blues Traveler more comfortable alone on tour
by David Bauder
Associated Press, National
Aug 7th, 1997

An hour and a half onstage wasn't quite enough for Blues Traveler this time around.

The band started the H.O.R.D.E. tour in 1992 and still runs it. But this summer, for the first time, it stayed away from traveling with the festival, preferring to tour on its own.

Part of the reason is the strong bill. With Neil Young and Beck leading the way, H.O.R.D.E. is, with Lilith Fair, one of the strongest package tours on the road. It didn't need Blues Traveler to sell tickets.

Just as important, Blues Traveler missed the three-hour shows it performed in its formative years. As H.O.R.D.E. headliners, it was usually 90 minutes, tops.

"A three-hour show is like a whole different experience," said singer John Popper. "It's like the full game. You warm it up in the first half and get your pace in the second half. It's all about celebrating the pace."

On H.O.R.D.E., the members of Blues Traveler know that people aren't there just to see them. So their show is a little like an audition in front of potential new fans.

At their own shows, they know they're preaching to the converted.

"When you have that much time to experiment, there's a whole different interaction," said guitarist Chan Kinchla. "People, I think, listen a little more and there's more of a chance to build a relationship. It takes it someplace a little more cerebral than just banging it out in an hour and a half."

Long shows can produce transcendent moments - few fans ever urged the Grateful Dead or Bruce Springsteen to get off the stage early - but self-indulgence can cause fans to nod off.

"We can get bored, too, and that's a problem," Popper said. The Blues Traveler method for keeping things interesting is to allow each member of the quartet to take a turn making the set list - deciding on what songs the group will perform. It keeps the complexion of the shows changing.

Much like onstage, Blues Traveler feels less of a need to prove itself on record. The album, four, sold 6 million copies and, through the much-played single, "Run-Around," was Blues Traveler's breakthrough.

It's not that they dashed off the new Straight on Till Morning album; in fact, they spent more time writing and rehearsing the material than they had in the past. Popper considers the ballad, "Yours," the best song he ever wrote.

But he noticed that his harmonica playing - Blues Traveler's signature sound - is becoming less acrobatic and more melodic.

"On four, I thought my job was almost to be the gimmick man, to play my harp and say, 'Look what I can do,'" he said. "I was very aware on this record that I didn't have to do that anymore. I think we're getting older and growing."

The voluble Popper's introduction to music and the harmonica came through the back door, when he watched Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd. He followed the trail of influences to masters like Paul Butterfield.

Now he can sit around and have esoteric discussions about how Jimi Hendrix is to Julius Erving as John Coltrane is to Michael Jordan in personal styles.

Blues Traveler members went through three stages of reaction when "Run-Around" was on the charts: delight when they first heard it on the radio, worry that people would get sick of them when they heard it all the time, then angst again when they didn't hear it and thought people would forget them.

All in all, success has worn pretty well on Popper, Kinchla, bass player Bob Sheehan and drum player Brendan Hill.

"We got to get houses off this last record," Popper said. "That's very nice. It's not something we're going to chase after, because it's not something you can run around predicting what people want. We're happy that it's here. We'll go in and out of style, depending on how long it lasts." Not only did they all get houses, the four men who met in high school in Princeton, N.J., scattered faster than dandelion seeds in a windstorm. Popper settled in rural eastern Pennsylvania, the well-tanned Kinchla is in Miami, Sheehan in New Orleans and Hill in Seattle.

Long forgotten are the days that all four lived Monkees-like in the same house while they played clubs in the New York City area.

"We don't want to go back there," Kinchla said. "Those were the good old days because they're old."

To maintain the cohesiveness, they take trips together for writing and recording. They spent one month preparing for the new album in a rural studio near Woodstock, N.Y., and another month in Seattle. The next trip will be to Miami, because Kinchla's wife is pregnant.

"It's great to be able to do that," Popper said. "It actually gives you more freedom. Because if you live in the same area of the country you have to stay in that area, or else you're being extravagant."