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A Suitcase Full of Blues
by Matthew Breen
myOC.com, National
May 18th, 2001

For the past decade, Blues Traveler has enjoyed the kind of success that few bands led by a vocalist wielding a harmonica experience. Started by "harmonica guy" John Popper, the future members of Blues Traveler (then called the Blues Band) took inspiration from The Blues Brothers, the 1980 film starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, and turned it into a musical phenomenon.

Popper, drummer Brendan Hill, guitarist Chan Kinchla and bassist Bobby Sheehan met in high school in New Jersey in the 1980s and did what many bands only dream of doing. They released a self-titled album in 1990, played all 50 states by 1995, opened for rock icons The Rolling Stones, and became the most frequently featured band on the David Letterman show.

Blues Traveler continued to release albums and build a fan base with a substantial touring schedule, averaging more than 200 shows per year. In 1993, the year they recorded their third album, Save His Soul, Popper was involved in a near-fatal car accident requiring months of rehabilitation. But defying expectations, they did not cancel their touring schedule. That summer Blues Traveler played with Popper's traveling tour creation, H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere), with Popper performing from a wheelchair after only a month's break. The H.O.R.D.E. Tour has become synonymous with Blues Traveler and has featured some of rock's biggest acts, such as Lenny Kravitz, Dave Matthews Band, Phish and Sheryl Crow.

Still, nothing could prepare the band for the runaway success of their fourth album, four. Released in 1994, the album sold more than six million copies and featured the ubiquitous Grammy-winning hit single "Run-Around."

In 1999 the band again experienced setbacks. In July, Popper underwent emergency angioplasty, and in August bassist Bobby Sheehan died of a drug overdose. The passing of founding member Sheehan and Popper's health problems stunned the band, and for some time the future of Blues Traveler seemed uncertain.

Bridge, released earlier this month, marks a new chapter in the band's history. After adding new band members Ben Wilson on keyboards and Tad Kinchla (brother of guitarist Chan Kinchla) on bass guitar, the band has a full slate of tour dates ahead of them.

Joining an enormously popular band could have been a daunting experience, but Tad Kinchla grew up around the band, making him a natural choice. After all, as Tad describes it, he has gone "from seeing them at the beginning stages where it was, like, me and my parents and no one else in the bar to playing Madison Square Garden for New Year's Eve."

Tad was playing with a band and supporting himself by doing freelance web design in New York when he got the call from the Blues Traveler's manager.

"Each member picked a guy to [audition to play bass], and I tried out on a 10-song set with them. I was the last one, and then a week later they called me up and told me they wanted me to play with them. In Tad says that joining the band was an easy decision:

"I've always been a big fan of the music. It was really interesting to be able to be on the inside of a band that's just so nice and well liked."

Touring with Blues Traveler's has required some getting used to, and it's an understatement to say that when one joins a rock band, one's plans change quite a bit. But Tad is adjusting.

"Last January we [left for] Austin and I didn't get back to Brooklyn until after Thanksgiving. It definitely takes acclimating. I was used to weeklong trips or little tours - but I love it.

"Given the bittersweet situation of having someone that I cared about and respected and thought was a great musician pass away, it was a complicated scenario to come into, and I feel like those guys treated me great and the fans have been really nice and supportive."

Helpful, too, was the band's conscious decision not to replace Bobby with a bass player who had the same sound. "They approached me and said, 'We know you're competent, we know you play your style and it's different than Bobby's.' They weren't trying to recreate the sound of Bobby's bass playing, which was more bluesy, more organ-sounding. But I play more funk, rhythmic, more grove-oriented. And that took a lot of pressure off me wanting to make the part sound the same. It's still the character of Blues Traveler, but they want me to do what I do, and that's made the whole thing great for me."

An evening gig at Red Rocks provided a breakthrough moment.

"I was really nervous before those gigs, and John and those guys were like, 'Don't worry about mistakes. You're going to make them. Just think about the show.' And just as I was stepping out - it was the biggest crowd I've played in front of - 12,000 people, packed, just a beautiful night. And I thought, 'If I can't enjoy playing, then I've got to rethink why I'm doing it.' It was an epiphany, and from that point on I thought about the shows in a different way, and I ended up playing one of the better shows I've played.

"For me, to play music in front of people, that's what you dream about," says Tad. "I'm a fan as well as a member now, so I'm out on stage and I'm playing and thinking, 'That song rocks!' And then I think, 'Oh wait, if I don't play, there's no bass!'"