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Blues Traveler
by Albert Torres
HOB.com, National
May 1st, 2001

One has to wonder what would have happened if John Popper had never seen the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd-starring vehicle and now classic film The Blues Brothers. There was something about the subdued passion and single-minded drive of the two men "on a mission from God" that captured Popper's attention and made him believe that life in a band was the only way to live.

Before this life-altering epiphany, Popper had already begun his musical journey at an early age. By the time he was 5 years old, his parents had enrolled him in cello lessons and later, by the age of 8, they planted him behind a piano. On the brink of becoming a teenager, Popper picked up the guitar as well, but quickly discovered that all the instruments he had attempted had one thing in common: none of them could keep his attention. However, it wasn't for lack of talent that Popper was short on focus. In fact, his guitar teacher forced his hand when it came to quitting simply because Popper preferred to play by ear rather than learn the sheet music.

It wasn't long after this incident that Popper discovered his true musical calling. While still a teenager, the harmonica fell in his hands and quickly became the instrument of his obsession. The evolution was a logical progression that fulfilled two criteria: 1) Finding a harmonica instructor is near impossible, which meant Popper would not have to suffer though anymore mind numbing lessons, and 2) he could now teach himself to play every song from his favorite movie, The Blues Brothers. Popper went on to champion the harmonica cause to the extent of becoming the very first player of the instrument to find a home in his high school band in Princeton, New Jersey. And all the while he set himself the goal to make the tiny wind instrument sound like Jimi Hendrix's guitar on "Voodoo Chile".

It was 1983 when Popper and high school classmate Brendan Hill first began tossing around the idea of forming a band, but it takes much more than a harmonica and a drummer to make beautiful rock music. In 1986 Chan Kinchla joined the duo on guitar and was quickly followed the next year by Bobby Sheehan on bass. With all the pieces in place, the foursome went the obvious route in naming the group.

The Blues Band was born and soon after their graduation three fourths of the group enrolled in the New York School for Social Research. Kinchla wound up at NYU. Their participation in the jazz program afforded them the opportunity to hone their musical skills and it wasn't long before the band was getting booked all around town. Eventually the gigs were coming in so regularly that school became a burden and ultimately an expendable activity. The band dropped out and hit the road full time.

Somewhere along the line a name change took affect and Blues Traveler was born. By 1989 the band had struck up a record deal with A&M Records and debuted with their self-titled release that same year. Blues Traveler rolled onto the scene with a less than thunderous entrance, but nevertheless began a smoldering burn across the states slowly building a fan base that would rival the biggest of mainstream acts. With over 250 shows a year Blues Traveler established a reputation that eventually earned them a feature spot playing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Their second album, Travelers & Thieves followed in 1991, continuing to fuel the subtly growing fervor. In 1992 Blues Traveler took action against the struggle to find a support slot on a major summer tour by creating an event that would catapult them into the world of the neo-hippie and spill-over Grateful Dead fan. Blues Traveler spearheaded the formation of Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere, or the H.O.R.D.E. Tour. The tour acted as a meeting place for like minded musicians that were rooted in the blues such as Phish and The Spin Doctors. After a few years, the tour began to draw massive crowds, allowing it to become one of the most popular events of the summer season.

Then in 1993, as the band began to submerge themselves into the process of recording their third record, a near fatal tragedy struck. "I was riding by bike to the studio," recalls Popper, "about 20 miles from where we where staying, doing about 70 mph. As I came around a turn, there was a car just sitting in the road and I didn't think I could stop safely, so I decided to pass it. The car turned right into me."

Popper suffered a broken arm, leg and hip and spent the following months in a wheelchair recuperating. But regardless of his physical limitations, Popper was back in the studio with the rest of the band after only a month of down time. "The month break allowed us time to brood over what we'd done thus far," recalls Popper. "Getting back into the studio was a new lease on music and life for me."

The outcome of this life-altering event was Save His Soul, an album that stretched far beyond the musical norms that Blues Traveler had established for themselves. In fact, based on a suggestion from Phish front man Trey Anastasio, Popper and the crew went as far to include a six-piece string section on one of the tunes, fueling the success of the album, which ultimately sold close to 500,000 copies, an astounding amount by any standard, but one even more impressive considering the fact it was done with almost no radio airplay and absolutely zero MTV support.

Then in 1994 the appropriately titled four hit the stores and proved to be the most successful Blues Traveler album to date. With the two hit singles, "Run-Around" and "Hook," Blues Traveler found out what it was like to be touched by the hand of fame. Radio and MTV picked up "Run-Around," facilitating the inevitable growth in sales the album would generate.

They followed the success of four with the 1996 live album Live From the Fall and 1997's fifth studio release, Straight on Till Morning.

Early 1998 spawned some difficulty for the group when bassist Bobby Sheehan ran into some trouble with the law for drug possession, a chilling foreshadowing of the heartbreak that would hit the band in the summer of 1999. On August 20 Popper, Kinchla and Hill received the news that Sheehan was found dead in his New Orleans apartment. A drug overdose would ultimately carry the blame.

Although clearly devastated the band managed to pull it together and by November of 1999 they had announced the addition of Tad Kinchla, Chan's brother, on bass. Upon releasing the news Chan issued a statement saying: "As painful as the situation has been for us, having the opportunity to play with a great musician and my brother makes me excited about the future."

Just prior to this time Popper managed to release a solo record, but was prevented from doing any promotional work when he was forced to undergo an angioplasty to correct an arterial blockage. Subsequently, Popper has lost 120 pounds, leaving him fit and ready for the rigors of the road that are soon to follow upon the release of their latest collection of jams.

With the troubles and tragedies of the past behind them Blues Traveler are on the verge of unleashing their seventh album. Early May 2001 will see the release of Bridge, another collection of roots driven rock that stands alone among the rock world and can only be defined as Blues Traveler.

article by: Albert Torres