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Blues Traveler plays benefit music festival
by Regis Behe
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Pittsburgh, PA
Aug 30th, 2002

It's a script even Hollywood would have a hard time selling: Unemployed keyboard player looking for a gig answers a magazine ad, auditions and gains employment with top-drawer rock band.

Couldn't happen. Except, for Ben Wilson, it did.

"All of a sudden, I'm told they want me to fly to Austin," says Wilson of Blues Traveler, which plays Sunday at the Allegheny County Music Festival. "Then all of a sudden I'm thinking, this could really be reality."

A short while later, he was the new guy in the band, filling a new position the group created in the wake of the death of longtime bassist Bobby Sheehan. Not exactly the easiest situation in the world to step into, with all the psychic wounds Blues Traveler had to deal with at the time.

But Wilson, whose previous gig was playing for Big Dave and the Ultrasonics, an Ann Arbor, Mich., blues band, had been in a few rock and jam bands while he was in college. So when Blues Traveler guitarist Chan Kinchla told Wilson the group liked his creative approach to music, Wilson was more or less in, especially since he passed another litmus test.

"Some of the other guys who auditioned were pretty good; they had the chops," Wilson says. "What Chan said made the difference was my ability to hang out and not be a (jerk). Other guys who were good players had a hard time fitting in, I guess."

And fitting in was important to Kinchla, lead singer John Popper and drummer Brendan Hill. The band had broken through in 1994 with the release of "four," an album that yielded two hit singles, "Run-Around" and "Hook."

Five years later, the group was in disarray. Popper had angioplasty surgery right before Sheehan died. Clearly, some changes needed to be made; enter Wilson and new bassist Tad Kinchla, Chan's brother.

"They said they didn't want me on the bench sitting by the sidelines, they wanted me in the trenches with them, contributing," Wilson says. "It was probably just lip service at the time, but in the two and a half years I've been in the band, my role has grown to the point where I play an important part."

People started taking notice of the new guy and the band's slightly different sound. In its review for the previous Blues Traveler studio album, Bridge, Rolling Stone magazine called Wilson a welcome addition, especially praising his contributions to the songs "You Lost Me There" and "You're Burning Me."

"When I first joined, we were in the middle of a record session, and it was me more just trying to fit in," he says.

But in the studio earlier this year, recording a new album that's slated to be released next year, Wilson says he found his niche.

"Previously to that, with some of the older music on the CDs they had done, they had added keyboard players," he says. "But there were parts they didn't like, so they had me change some things. A lot of the older stuff was just a question of learning the material, and me figuring out where I could fit in and stay out of the way. Not only me, but Tad, too. His bass playing is different than Bobby's, it's a little funkier, so we've taken a little bit more of that edge."

More importantly, the band's mental and physical health has rebounded.

"When Bobby died, it was a huge blow to the band," he says. "He wasn't just the bass player, he was also a childhood friend. And it was really a shock when John went through surgery. ... After all the band's gone through, it's just really good to know that Blues Traveler still exists, that it's really a good, strong band."