Following in the footsteps of the legendary cult band Grateful Dead’s dedicated touring schedule, Blues Traveler has lived up to its name. More than its recorded music, touring stints that last months at a time have earned the rock band notoriety. The group started out by playing high school parties, and its members insist they perform better onstage than in the recording studio. Blues Traveler, in fact, was able to maintain a loyal fan base throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, despite their virtual nonexistence on the music charts. All of that changed in 1995 when the LP four produced a Top 40 single and catapulted the band into mainstream success.
Blues Traveler’s lead singer, John Popper, spent most of his youth in Stamford, Connecticut, before moving to Princeton, New Jersey, when he was 15 years old. While attending high school, Popper discovered the harmonica and developed a reputation around Princeton High School as “that harmonica guy.” He decided to play the instrument in the Princeton High studio band where he met London-born drummer Brendan Hill.
Members include Brendan Hill , drums;Chan Kinchla , guitar; John Popper , vocals and harmonica; and Bobby Sheehan , bass.
Group formed by Popper and Hill as the Blues Band, 1983; moved to New York and changed name to Blues Traveler, 1987; signed contract with A&M Records, 1989, and released self-titled debut album, 1990; founded H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) music festival, 1992.
Awards: Platinum album award for four.
Addresses: Record company —A&M Records, 1416 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood, CA 90028.
In 1983 Popper and Hill put together the Blues Band. They played high school parties for money, sparking the attention of many of their schoolmates. Two years later, a Princeton High football, lacrosse, and guitar player named Chan Kinchla decided to jam with his classmates in the Blues Band. It turned into a marathon three-hour collaboration that became known as the “black cat jam.” The reference to the animal came about because a black cat wandered up after the band finished; Popper explained in Rolling Stone that the cat seemed “like it was going ‘whoa’ with us. Whenever we have trouble, a big event, a crisis of faith, or some milestone, there is a black cat there. This is the truth.”
In 1987, two years after the black cat jam, the trio met up with another Princeton High schoolmate, bassist Bobby Sheehan, who finalized the line-up of the Blues Band. When the band members graduated from high school, they moved to New York City to gain more exposure. Popper, Hill, and Sheehan enrolled in New York’s New School to study jazz. The band was soon performing in area clubs under the name Blues Traveler.
Shortly after they started playing clubs, Blues Traveler grabbed the attention of late concert promoter Bill Graham, who immediately decided to become the band’s manager. (Graham’s son David would eventually take over.) With Bill Graham’s contacts and support, Blues Traveler signed a contract with A& M Records in 1989. By that time, they had performed live throughout the region and played 16 to 20 shows per month.
Blues Traveler had brought their own style of blues and 1960s rock-influenced music to the stage for several years, and in 1990 the band released their self-titled debut album. Describing Blues Traveler’s original brand of rock to Rolling Stone’s Elysa Gardner, Popper said, “If [blues musician] Muddy Waters was a white guy living in the suburbs in the late ’80s, he’d sound a lot like us.”
The following year, Jim Gaines produced the band’s second album, Travelers & Thieves. Their continuous live shows had resulted in many comparisons to both the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. After the release of Travelers & Thieves, the comparisons increased with the guest appearance of Gregg Allman on keyboards and backing vocals on the song “Mountain Cry.”
Blues Traveler had accomplished moderate record sales with very little promotion, mostly due to their relentless touring. But the band insisted that their style of music just worked better on the stage. “The best term for [the Blues Traveler sound] I’ve heard is ‘neo-retro,’” commented guitarist Kinchla in Guitar Player.“A lot of music has moved away from that feel of live interaction, so we’re getting back to music the audience can feel it’s part of.” Popper concurred, pointing out in Billboard, “We’ve always been predominantly a live band. Our studio albums are nice tries, but the live shows just totally blow them away”
Commitment to live performance led Popper to organize the first annual H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) festival. The inaugural line-up included Blues Traveler’s high school friends the Spin Doctors, along with Phish, Widespread Panic, and Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit.
Blues Traveler’s whirlwind of recording and touring came to a temporary halt in 1992 after an unfortunate accident. While driving his motorcycle in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Popper was hit by a car. He had several broken limbs and was briefly confined to a wheelchair. At the time of the accident, the rest of the band was in the Studio in the Country laying down tracks for the instrumental song “Manhattan Bridge” Blues Traveler used the period after the accident to spend more time recording the LP Save His Soul, produced by Steve Thompson and Mike Barbiero. Released in 1993, the album included some experimentation for the band, including a song called “Trina Magna,” which featured a New Orleans gospel trio layered with a New York gospel choir.
During the summer of 1993, Blues Traveler organized another H.O.R.D.E. festival. This time, the bill included Big Head Todd and the Monsters and the Samples, along with the returning Widespread Panic and Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. By this time, Blues Traveler had added another item to their list of Grateful Dead comparisons. The Grateful Dead have long been known to have fans, or “Dead Heads,” follow them from show to show. Blues Traveler also found van loads of fans hot on their trail; the group’s touring cavalcade came to be referred to as “Fellow Travelers”
Blues Traveler continued to release their “souvenir” albums; their fourth LP, released in 1994, was aptly titled four. Once again produced by Steve Thompson and Mike Barbiero, four arrived in stores with a choice of two covers: one depicted the right side of the band’s logo—a cat smoking a cigarette— while the other showed the left side of the cat with no cigarette.
Unlike with Blues Traveler’s previous albums, sold solely from the promotion of the band’s tours, A&M Records decided to add to their marketing efforts to the release of four. The company released the singles “Hook” and “Run-around” to get the attention of radio stations and expand recognition for the band. Top 40 radio airplay earned Blues Traveler increased popularity and spurred sales of four. “Run-around” even broke into the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart in May of 1995. Jim Glass, senior vice president of marketing at A&M, was quoted in Billboard as saying, “We have always believed that this band would someday have tremendous success. It was just a matter of patience and timing”.
The members of Blues Travelers, however, continued to follow the nomadic lifestyle of the road, playing show after show to their “Fellow Travelers.” In the face of their newfound mainstream stardom, the band was excited and felt optimistic that they would not alienate their longtime cult fan base. Guitarist Chan Kinchla expressed the band’s views on fame in Billboard, “If it had happened sooner, I’m afraid that it would have changed us too drastically as people or shifted our musical focus. We are more grown-up now and can handle the pressures and demands that come with it.”
On A&M Records
Blues Traveler, 1990.
Travelers & Thieves, 1991.
Save His Soul, 1993.
four (includes “Hook” and “Run-around”), 1994.0
Billboard, June 30, 1990; January 25, 1992; August 1, 1992; April 10, 1993; May 8, 1993; August 20, 1994; October 1, 1994; May 20, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, April 16, 1993; September 30, 1994; December 9, 1994.
Guitar Player, March 1992; August 1993.
Musician, March 1993.
New York Times, July 14, 1992.
Rolling Stone, January 23, 1992; April 16, 1992; May 28, 1992; June 24, 1993.
Stereo Review, July 1993; January 1995.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the on-line All-Music Guide, Matrix Software, 1994.
Formed: 1987; Princeton, New Jersey
Members: Brendan Hill, drums (born London, England, 27 March 1970); Chandler "Chan" Kinchla, guitar (born Hamilton, Ontario, 29 May 1969); Tad Kinchla, bass (born Princeton, New Jersey, 21 February 1973); John Popper, vocals, harmonica (born Cleveland, Ohio, 29 March 1967); Ben Wilson, keyboards (born Chicago, Illinois, 17 November 1967). Former members: Bobby Sheehan, bass (died New Orleans, Louisiana, 20 August 1999).
Best-selling album since 1990: four (1994)
Hit songs since 1990: "Run-Around," "Hook," "But Anyway"
Blues Traveler took chances by updating steeped-in-tradition blues. But the group gradually won respect for its original way of incorporating R&B, jazz, and flower-power influences to create a spicy, danceable fusion, and it became one of America's top touring groups.
Vocalist John Popper, one of seven children, made no secret of his upper-middle-class background. His father was an information technology consultant and his mother was a lawyer. Despite the comforts of a middle-class lifestyle, he did experience his share of misery growing up. Obese since childhood, Popper referred to food as his "drug." Naturally, he endured his share of bullying. To deal with the teasing, he considered becoming a comedian. He enjoyed John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd's Blues Brothers sketches on Saturday Night Live. He did not feel like he had enough material to do stand-up every night, though his love for the medium would show up in his witty lyrics later on. As it turned out, watching the Blues Brothers gave him a love for blues and harmonica. Purists did not think much of the way young Popper was introduced to the venerable American genre, but he pursued it with admirable gusto and sincere appreciation.
In high school and immediately after, he began jamming with drummer Brendan Hill, guitarist Chan Kinchla, and bass player Bobby Sheehan. Popper, Hill, and Sheehan studied at the New School of Jazz in New York. They jelled through their mutual love of blues and relocated to Brooklyn, New York, performing in blues and R&B clubs. Blandly christened the Blues Band at first, the band wisely adopted its better-known moniker after Gozer the Traveler, a character in the film Ghostbusters (1984). Fusing blues with hippie rock and alternative rock, the band found itself unwelcome in a few traditional clubs.
The group got a major boost when legendary rock promoter Bill Graham became a fan and took the group under his wing. Noticing the group's propensity for extended jams, he gave it an opening slot for the Jerry Garcia Band. By 1990 the group was one of New York's top club attractions and inked a deal with A&M Records.
The band's debut album, Blues Traveler (1990), does not capture the mesmerizing energy of the group's gigs, but it does show some fine songwriting and intergenerational rock eclecticism. It leads off with "But Anyway," an up-tempo number that highlights many of the strengths that would lead the group to bigger and better things. In the forefront are Popper's forceful but intricate harmonica riffs, his raspy blues-man singing, and Hill's funky backbeat. "Gina" alludes to the group's bar-band roots with earthy guitar and pleading lyrics. The bleak ballad "100 Years" mulls over the evanescent nature of human existence. The instrumental "Mulling It Over" is pure 1960s narcissism, with a noodling harmonica solo and a quasi-psychedelic, cymbal-overloaded drum solo. There is plenty of variety, especially in the first half of the album, proving that the group has songwriting talent and is more than just a jam band.
The band wasted no time in releasing sophomore set Travelers and Thieves (1991), which features guest keyboardist/vocalist Gregg Allman on "Mountain Cry." The whole band pitches in on songwriting, with Popper taking most of the load. The word "travelers" took on a new meaning in the band's context, referring to fans who follow the group around from gig to gig, much like Deadheads followed the Grateful Dead. In 1992 the band founded the H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) Tour to give exposure to other jam bands. The tour ran every summer for five years.
With Save His Soul (1993), Blues Traveler began to finally break out of its regional box, earning a modest rock-radio hit with "Conquer Me." Mindful that a label like A&M would not put up with modest-selling efforts forever, the band keeps its jamming tendencies under control for the most part, though two of fourteen tracks clock in at over seven minutes.
For Blues Traveler, the fourth time was a charm. The band's four (1994) received scant attention upon its early fall release, but after the new year the irresistibility of first single "Run-Around" worked its magic first on alternative-rock radio, then on Top 40. In a departure from the group's sometimes complex music, "Run-Around" is based on a facile two-bar, four-chord motif. What keeps the tune from seeming boring is the way Popper works himself into a frenzy of indignation over a girlfriend's behavior, and his cathartic "yeeeah" at the beginning of each chorus. Popper furiously blasts away at his harmonica as the single fades out. The song reached number eight on the Hot 100 and spent forty-nine weeks on the chart. The midtempo "Hook," whose title describes its Top 40 appeal, is notable for its funky, silver-tongued breakdown. It spent over eight months on the Hot 100.
In an attempt to lessen the inevitable pressure of following up a major success with another hit-filled studio collection, the group released its double album Live from the Fall (1996), recorded over six months of touring. This set finds the group in its solo-happy element; six tracks last over eight minutes. "But Anyway," from the debut album, reappears and became a middling hit on alternative-rock radio.
For Straight on Till Morning (1997), a title full of suggestive meanings, the group tries to capture its improvisational vibe, worrying less about keeping songs hook-filled and radio-friendly. However, by the end of the sessions Popper felt like he had nearly run out of songs. Popper attempts a confessional, Barenaked Ladies–style story-song with "Canadian Rose," and adds a Latin feel to the flirtatious boogie "Felicia." Though the playing is excellent as usual, the album was a commercial and critical disappointment, lacking the energy and hunger of four.
A dream gig presented itself later in 1997—the group got the opening slot for part of the Rolling Stones's tour. It would have been a perfect opportunity to win stadiums full of new, if older, fans. Unfortunately, Sheehan almost caused the band to lose the gig when he was arrested for cocaine possession in Canada. Fortunately for the band, his detention was brief. However, it foreshadowed tragic events. In August 1999 Sheehan, thirty-one, died of a drug overdose. After mourning his death and doing some soul searching, Blues Traveler decided to carry on. Chan Kinchla's younger brother Tad joined as bass player in November 1999.
The group slowly got back on its feet in 2000, adding a new member, keyboardist Ben Wilson. The move was designed to take some of the emphasis off Popper's harmonica and create a more varied sound. Popper lost a significant amount of weight during that time, and on Bridge (2001) it is obvious that his new physique changed his voice as well, making it sound a little more mellow and less angst-ridden. The group brings the funk, with Wilson conjuring soul legend Stevie Wonder on "You Reach Me" and coloring "Rage" with electric piano. "Pretty Angry" uncompromisingly expresses the band's grief over Sheehan's death. While the album explores promising new horizons, it was not a hit and the band redoubled its focus on its strength—live performances.
While never attaining the heady mix of cult status and mainstream acceptance of groups like the Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler became an important band among hippies young and old, blues fans, alternative rockers, and others who enjoyed sunny grooves and a communal atmosphere.
Blues Traveler (A&M, 1990); four (A&M, 1994); Live from the Fall (A&M, 1996); Straight On Till Morning (A&M, 1997); Bridge (A&M, 2001).
the archetypal rock band in atypical times (formed Princeton, N.J., c. 1983). Membership:John Popper, voc, har. (b. Cleveland, Ohio, 1967); Chan Kinchla, gtr; Bobby Sheehan, bs; Brendan Hill, drms.
In many ways, Blues Traveler led the “movement” of “jam bands” like Phish and the Spin Doctors that flew in the face of the prevailing alternative sounds of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Fronted by harmonica virtuoso and vocalist John Popper, the band plays a loose-limbed rock that owes as much to the Grateful Dead as it does to Bruce Springsteen. Like both of the latter, they often play sets that run to three or more hours. Popper also peppers his lyrics with references to Cyrano de Bergerac and Rudyard Kipling. The band came together when Popper, who had moved from Cleveland to Conn., finally landed in Princeton, N.J. He met drummer Brendan Hill in high school, and they started playing as the Blues Band. They added the “Traveler” part after seeing the film Ghostbusters—the villain who takes the form of the marshmallow man is Gozer The Traveler. Six foot, five inch Chan Kinchla joined the band when a knee injury curtailed his participation in football and his disaffection with the limited vocabulary of punk led him to explore other avenues for his guitar playing.
The trio moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., attending classes at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research. Adding bassist Bobby Sheehan in 1987, they started playing clubs in the East Village and cutting demo tapes, which they sold from the stage. One person who became aware of the group and befriended them was Late Night with David Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer. Another was impresario Bill Graham. He booked them with bands like the Allman Brothers and Santana, getting them a far higher profile. This eventually landed them at A&M Records, who put out their eponymous debut in 1990. Shaffer helped get them booked on the Letter-man Show, where they became regulars.
In addition to appearing on Letterman over a dozen times, the band played over 800 concerts in three years. In answer to Jane’s Addictions successful alternative music festival Lollapalooza, Blues Traveler created the HORDE (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) tour in 1992, headlining Spin Doctors, Phish, and Widespread Panic, among others. Over the intervening years, artists ranging from the Allman Brothers to Bruce Hornsby to Smashing Pumpkins to Neil Young have joined the HORDE.
Blues Traveler’s first three albums sold modestly with Save His Soul actually charting at #73. Immediately before the album came out, Popper was in a serious motorcycle accident. After six months of recovery, the band hit the road again, with Popper taking the stage in a wheelchair for the second annual HORDE.
Their fourth album—aptly titled Four—sold over six million copies when the band’s song “Run-Around” became ubiquitous on pop and rock radio (it peaked at #8, #27 sales and #3 airplay) and won a Best Rock Performance, Duo or Group, with Vocal Grammy. The follow-up single, “Hook” topped out at #23 and the album peaked at #9
The band appeared over the closing credits of the movie Kingpin. They played “But Anyway” dressed in Amish garb. Popper also had a cameo in the Howard Stern movie Private Parts.
Blues Traveler put out the double-live album Live from the Fall, which captured the spirit of their set but failed to chart. They followed this a year later with Straight on Till Morning. In addition to the radio track single “Carolina Blues,” the album featured strings and other production touches the band had previously avoided. The songwriting was more structured and the playing reflected the band’s maturing status.
Blues Traveler (1990); Travelers and Thieves (1991); Save His Soul (1993); Four (1994); Live from the Fall (1996); Straight on Till Morning (1997).