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Keep on Keepin' on with Blues Traveler
by Alan Sculley
Music Revue Magazine, National
Nov 1st, 1997

When John Popper, singer and harmonica player for Blues Traveler, shattered his leg in a motorcycle accident in 1993, it seemed like a setback that would stunt the momentum the band had been building over seven years of touring and recording.

Instead, drummer Brendan Hill feels this period during which Popper began his rehabilitation and the band, which also includes guitarist Chan Kinchla and bassist Bob Sheehan, recorded the 1993 CD Save His Soul, was an important step in the band's musical growth. The lessons learned during this period, HIll said, helped turn Blues Traveler's next CD, four, into a multi-platinum breakthrough release.

"When we made our third record, Save His Soul, we had experiences with our two various producers where they kind of took what our music was, put it on tape, mixed it and put it out," Hill said. "We were very hesitant to let them get inside our heads. We didn't really want them changing our stuff because that's what we were and that's what we played live. But when we did our third record, John had his accident, and we were down there in Louisiana all by ourselves just doing what we wanted to do. So we kind of became our own producers. We were able to say to each other, 'Bob or Chan, maybe we should make this solo shorter, or maybe we should do this part here or maybe we should tighten up this groove a little bit. And Bob, you and me should play the same kick drum, bass guitar line'."

When it came time to mix Save His Soul, the band selected Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero for the project. The band was so happy with their work on Save His Soul, that Thompson and Barbiero were tapped to produce the fourth CD.

"We were much more open to them coming in and saying, on a song like 'Run-Around' or a song like 'The Mountains Win Again,' 'Let's make it so you have all the little points, like the solo in 'Run-Around' or the solo in 'The Mountains Win Again,' but let's not belabor the point and let's make it nice and tight, so when people hear it on the radio, they want to hear it again and again. And when they (audiences) come to see you play it live, then you can take it and explore and expand.' I think that was a really good lesson we learned, not only from them (Thompson and Barbiero), but from ourselves on our third record. So working with them, I think they had a lot to do with tightening up our sound in he studio."

The tighter, more focused sound on four helped Blues Traveler to finally connect with MTV and radio, and the CD's two top ten hits, "Run-Around" and "Hook," exposed the band to a larger audience. It also led to a dilemma that ironically brought about another step in the band's musical growth.

"We felt a lot of pressure after four to make another really kind of tight, poppy studio album," Hill said. "So that's why we decided to do the Live from the Fall, our fifth release, which is that live album. We were able to give the fans who maybe thought we were making things a little too tight on record, give them what we do live so they can hav eit in their CD player, like a really great bootleg. I thinkthat worked to our advantage because we also separated four from our next studio release by a little bit of time."

The growth even between four and Straight On Till Morning is apparent even to the casual listener. Where early Blues Traveler CDs, such as their 1990 self-titled debut or 1991's Travelers and Thieves were defined by their extended jams, the new CD is even more song oriented than four.

The band's musical range has also widened. Straight On Till Morning features two of the hardest edged songs Blues Traveler has recorded - "Carolina Blues" and "Justify the Thrill." There are also several solid songs, such as "Felicia," "Most Precarious" and "Canadian Rose," that fit the poppier mold of a tune like "Run-around." Perhaps the biggest departure is "Yours," an elegant, extended ballad that comes complete with strings and one of the most beautiful harmonica solos one could hope to hear.

"I think Chan grew a lot on this record," Hill said. "John said that instead of playing (harmonica) very fast and showing off his chops, he's learned to slow down a little bit and play more kind of melodically and with more feeling, rather than just doing all the rapid fire stuff. I think Bob and I have really locked in, and to Bob's credit, I think he's a really great, innovative bass player. He and I have really learned ESP through the years where we just know exactly where each other are going to go. And I feel like I did a lot of grooves on this record and fills and stuff which I had grown on as well. I think the whole band has grown."

Although Blues Traveler has become a bona-fide million selling band, Hill said the success was not a huge adjustment. The foursome had been together 10 years, done three previous albums and toured heavily and this prepared the band to deal with having a higher profile.

"Before we released four, we'd had all those road gigs and we used to do like 230, 240 gigs a year," Hill said. "We were on the road constantly just working and honing our craft and we had a really strong base of fans already. By the time our fourth album was released, our first album had gone gold. I think even if we hadn't had real commercial success with four, I think all of our albums would have eventually gone gold, just by our touring incessantly."

"We took it tongue in cheek, and we knew from our friends in the Spin Doctors, that fame and success and all that, the trappings of being one hit wonders or whatever, can go away very quickly," Hill added. "So we knew just to keep our heads up and know what was going on, and just to keep touring, enjoy the minute in the spotlight that we had and then things would get back to normal. And you know the album took off, and we were doing all kinds of crazy things like, you know, films and we were hosting MTV shows and doing all sorts of really fun stuff. We just enjoyed it."