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Members include Brendan Hill, drums; Chan Kinchla, guitar; John Popper, vocals and harmonica; and Bobby Sheehan, bass. Addresses: Record company--A&M Records, 1416 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood, CA 90028.
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.
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."
by Thaddeus Wawro
Blues Traveler's Career
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.
Blues Traveler's Awards
Platinum album award for four.
- Selective Works
- On A&M Records Blues Traveler, 1990.
- Travelers & Thieves, 1991.
- Save His Soul, 1993.
- four (includes "Hook" and "Run-around"), 1994.
September 13, 2005: Blues Traveler's album, Bastardos!, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_7/index.jsp, September 14, 2005.
- 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.
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