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Traveling with the Blues
Keyboardist Ben Wilson finds fit with revamped group
by John Lamb
The Forum, Fargo, ND
Aug 24th, 2004

Ben Wilson was a veteran of blues jams on the road years before he joined Blues Traveler.

The keyboard player was touring the country with a jam band based out of Ann Arbor, Mich., when he heard the nationally-known rock act was looking for a piano man.

Wilson sent in a tape and in the fall of 1999 the group landed its man. His impact was felt immediately on 2001's Bridge as he swapped solos with the group's harp-blowing front man, John Popper. The keyboard player's role grew as he contributed music to last summer's Truth Be Told.

"I just fit into the group and play the right parts in songs," Wilson says. "I'm not the greatest technician in the world, but I have a good ear and can figure out what to do."

The keyboardist and his new band bring its blend of blues, rock and jam music to Playmakers tonight.

Wilson says it was a small adjustment from playing clubs and small theaters with his former band to playing bigger halls and festivals with Blues Traveler. He's more conscious of who he's playing to.

"We're aware of how we straddle a few different fences, but we don't try to appease people," the 36-year-old says.

He says that the group tailors the set list depending on the venue and the expected crowd, noting that fans of jam bands wouldn't need to hear the poppy hits like "Hook" and "Run-around."

The diplomatic approach plays to both sides of the aisle, but the band refuses to play politics. While many artists are jumping on a candidate's bandwagon, that's one ride Blues Traveler isn't taking.

"We don't all agree, so it's hard to pick a side," Wilson says. "If we do something for one side, we try to do something for the other side to balance it out."

The band may not agree in the voting booth, but they are starting to gel as a band.

Wilson and bassist Tad Kinchla joined at the same time, just months after founding bassist, Bobby Sheehan, died of a drug overdose. Sheehan's death, coupled with Popper's heart and weight problems (he underwent angioplasty earlier that summer) forced the band to refocus.

Wilson likes to challenge the listener, while Kinchla brings a more percussive approach to his bass playing and easily settles into rock grooves with drummer Brendan Hill.

Guitarist Chan Kinchla, Tad's brother, is responsible for writing both the pop and rock songs, while Popper "prefers the poppy ditties," Wilson says.

In a 1999 interview with Rolling Stone about his solo debut Zygote, Popper admitted to being a softie.

"I am a really schmaltzy songwriter," the singer said.

"It's hard to say who's had more impact. It took two years to gel as a five-piece," Wilson says.

While on the road, the band doesn't engage in much songwriting, instead jamming for a few minutes during sound check.

"We all wish we could (write on the road)," Wilson says. "All of our schedules get wacky."

He says the group has to plan out writing and recording sessions since members are spread across the country, from the Pacific Northwest to Wilson's home in Austin, Texas.

"It gets harder to kick out new music," he says.

Still, the keyboardist isn't complaining about this long, strange trip.

"I'm incredibly fortunate to do what I love to do and make some money at it."