Formed in 1988 in New York City, rock quintet Blues Traveler emerged as one of the leading acts of the ’90s jam band scene that came to include the likes of the Dave Matthews Band, the Spin Doctors, Phish, and Widespread Panic.
With Popper’s virtuoso harmonica playing as a key ingredient, the group gradually began to develop songwriting chops to go with their talent for freewheeling jams. With their fourth album, 1994’s Four, Blues Traveler hit commercial pay dirt. The LP spawned a smash single with the Grammy-winning song “Runaround” and cemented Blues Traveler’s status as a major act on the rock scene.
Blues Traveler enjoyed continued success during the rest of the ’90s, releasing the concert album Live From The Fall and the studio disc Straight On Till Morning before going on a hiatus.
But then came tragedy. With original bassist Bobby Sheehan’s death in Aug. ’99, the band’s future was suddenly turned upside down. It’s now been six years since Blues Traveler went through perhaps the most difficult situation a band can face.
The group soldiered on after Sheehan’s death, revamping the band lineup with the additions of bassist Tad Kinchla (the younger brother of guitarist Chan Kinchla) and keyboardist Ben Wilson. Along with original vocalist and harmonica virtuoso John Popper and drummer Brendan Hill, they made their official return with the 2001 album, Bridge, followed by Truth Be Told in 2003.
Even if the second edition of Blues Traveler has been a steady presence on the music scene for five years, Tad Kinchla feels the group has found their footing with the writing, recording, and release of their brand-new album, Bastardos (Vanguard).
“I think we’ve really hit our stride as the new band,” Kinchla says. “We’ve gone from feeling it out. People can like it or not like it, but it is a different sound. It’s neat hearing people hash out what they like about the old band and the comparisons because that’s healthy. The fact that they’re interested at all about it is cool for us as musicians and as a band. I think we’re definitely hitting our stride with this new stuff.”
Some of the progress is purely musical, as the five band members have found a comfort zone on stage and in the studio and have grown comfortable with knowing how to fit in a third melodic instrument, the keyboards, alongside Kinchla’s guitar and Popper’s harmonica.
“You start to become familiar with moves and hear signs and triggers and kind of create your own language,” the bassist says. “Ben and I are more proficient at it. And that makes unspoken signs and gestures and cues a lot easier. So the flow of a night is definitely easier because everyone is kind of talking in the same language.”
Kinchla’s feelings about the progress of Blues Traveler, though, go beyond the musical development of the band members. He also feels that only recently has the group been able to move on emotionally and truly close the book on the first chapter of Blues Traveler’s history.
“I think it was an undertone and still is,” Kinchla says of Sheehan’s death. “Any tragedy is never resolved. It’s something that everyone learns to cope with. These guys grew up together. We all went to high school together. I knew Bobby since I was in fifth grade. So it was definitely more personal as might be perceived by somebody who didn’t know the history of the band. One of the things that I think kind of carried the band through when it was a sad period and more of just mourning was that Bobby, his spirit of let’s go out and play and let’s do a gig is really a part of all of the guys.”
Even though the new lineup was in place, the shadow of the original Blues Traveler still hung over the band. Early on, the decision was made that if Blues Traveler was going to continue, the group would not try to replicate the original band. The addition of a keyboard in the instrumental mix essentially assured that.
But Kinchla says it’s only with Bastardos that the members of Blues Traveler felt free enough from the original band’s musical past to really begin making music on their own terms.
While not betraying familiar trademarks, Bastardos features several songs that add a decidedly fresh spin on the original group’s signature sound. “You Can’t Stop Thinking About Me” is the catchy opening track that uses Wilson’s keyboards to give an appealingly spooky current. On “After What,” the group blends gritty rock with expansive pop as Chan Kinchla’s riffing provides a strong counterpoint to the song’s spacious melody. The horn-laced “She and I” brings out a jazz influence that had never really surfaced this strongly on earlier Blues Traveler albums.
Helping the band achieve the more adventurous sound was producer Jay Bennett, a former member of Wilco. Tad Kinchla says the group chose Bennett largely because he was open-minded about the group’s sound and he wouldn’t try to steer the music into a neat, commercially oriented package. “I think we wanted to get someone with a little weird, a little different angle on the music,” he says. “We looked at people who might be a little more alternative, even some kind of hip-hop producer-type things just to get different references. So his name was suggested randomly. He seemed like a cool guy. He came down to Austin during the writing session. He was a total idiosyncratic, weird music guy, which is what the industry needs more of.”
The good vibes that characterized the writing and recording have extended into the touring behind the album.
“We’ve had a lot of fun,” Kinchla says. “I think that kind of goes down the line with our crew and everyone around us.”