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The recent release of Blues Traveler's Truth Be Told shows the band has overcome its adversities as new tightly-gelled unit with one of their strongest releases to date.
Not all bands go through what Blues Traveler has gone through in recent years, and the ones that do seldom survive.
Formed in Princeton, N.J., in 1987, Blues Traveler's original line-up - John Popper (harmonica, vocals), Brendan Hill (drums), Chan Kinchla (guitar) and Bobby Sheehan - helped to create a grass-roots, neo-hippie movement best seen today in the jam band world.
All virtuosic players, Blues Traveler took a heavy blues influence and a knack for improvisation to new heights and audiences. Along with establishing itself as a top-notch live act, the band co-founded the HORDE Tour in the early 1990s, which helped put other bands in the same vein - Phish, Widespread Panic, Dave Matthews Band, Col. Bruce Hampton - on the map.
Years of constant touring and five studio records gave Blues Traveler a reputation as a band just as capable of turning heads on stage as it was of catching ears on radio and MTV. The paramount of the band's mainstream success thus far came with the 1995 album four, certified six-times platinum, with its hit single "Run-around" still holding the record for the longest charting single ever in the history of Billboard.
The success came at a high price, however. The tragic passing of Bobby Sheehan in 1999 and frontman John Popper's struggles with obesity all but insured the band would not see success in the new millennium.
With the help of two new bandmates in bassist Tad Kinchla (brother to guitarist Chan) and keyboardist Ben Wilson, Blues Traveler has persevered tragedy and personal heath problems (Popper dropped more than 100 pounds after gastric bypass surgery) to maintain its presence in the music world.
With 2001's Bridge, the group took on recording and touring in a new dynamic. The recent release of Truth Be Told shows the band has overcome its adversities as new tightly-gelled unit with one of their strongest releases to date.
"It's definitely been an adjustment for everybody," says new member Wilson. "Whenever you add a member it takes time to get used to personally and musically. I think we ran into trouble on Bridge. It wasn't as clean and crisp as it could've been and I think that got worked out a little bit more on Truth Be Told." He adds he thinks a lot of that had to do with playing live for a year and a half, along with starting to come together as a band.
Produced by Don Gehman, Truth Be Told shows the new band in top form. Popper's voice is as strong as ever and each track features dazzling musicianship and carries the unique, intelligent arrangements the band has become known for.
While Truth Be Told may not garner the same mainstream success as four, the band still expertly straddles the line that separates delicious bubble gum pop and the jam credibility of tight musicianship. Though it's impossible to please all the people all the time, few bands have the ability to attract new listeners while still pleasing their road-tested fans the way Blues Traveler can.
"We think about it a lot," Wilson says of the band's pop and jam appeal. "Sometimes our hardcore fans accuse us of trying too hard to write singles and being a pop band. But when we're doing a record we're more about trying to write songs. When we're live, we're more about trying to show off the fact that we can play our instruments more. ... I don't think the band's ever set out to write hits, they wrote songs the way they heard them and that's the way we're doing it now."
The trial period for the two new members is long over and Blues Traveler indeed has survived, maintaining its double-identity of being a polished studio band along with one of the hottest live shows around. "Tad and I are full-on members of the band," Wilson says, "we reap the benefits and feel the pain. ... There was a trial period for both of us, but once we started looking ahead it was clear that we are all in this together."