[H O M E]
Joining a rock band at the height of its stardom is a dream.
Joining a rock band that has just lost a beloved member to an accidental drug overdose can be a nightmare.
That's the paradoxical position bassist Tad Kinchla and keyboardist Ben Wilson found themselves in three years ago when they were tapped by the monster jam band Blues Traveler to mutually succeed original bassist Bobby Sheehan, who had died of a recreational misadventure.
Perhaps because the band was in no mood for niceties, the audition process was about as bracing, merciless and definitive as a Polar Bear Club swim.
No slack was cut for Kinchla, even though he's the brother of Blues Traveler guitarist Chad Kinchla and attended the same high school as most of the other band members.
"Basically, the audition was playing a live show with the band," Kinchla says. "There were no rehearsals. It was probably one of the more hardcore auditions I have ever been through.
"It wasn't my most fun gig. Then they waited about two weeks to tell me that it all had ended up well."
Wilson recalls that in the months after he and Kinchla were hired, Sheehan's absence was keenly felt.
"You've got to understand, there were a whole lot of unhappy firsts in that year after Bobby died: the first songwriting session without Bobby, the first producer meeting without Bobby," Wilson says. "That tour was about firsts without Bobby. People would get emotional at times.
"I think everyone struggled with wanting to honor him, and understanding that you can't stay in that place. He wouldn't have wanted anyone to do it."
"Yeah, it was a challenge. Everyone was grieving. Everyone had their own relationship with Bobby. I had a relationship with Bobby as well. So it was cathartic for everyone involved to get out and play."
But the band assured Kinchla that his job description called for more than evoking nostalgia.
"They made it clear to me that they weren't hiring me to replace Bobby. They were hiring me to be their bass player. They were like, 'Don't try to recreate Bobby's parts. Don't try to do something unnatural. We know where this band has been. We want to see where it's going.' "
As a veteran of regional funk bands, Kinchla was unprepared for the scope of Blues Traveler's celebrity.
"That first tour took some getting used to. The schedule is something I had to learn how to deal with. Playing a gig for 50,000 people and then being on a bus for eight hours takes some learning."
Wilson admits he, too, was pretty stressed out in the beginning, and nowhere was that stress more evident than at the band's annual Fourth of July concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver in 2000.
"I was really nervous and then I realized the original guys were just a little bit jittery themselves. So I thought, 'Hey, I need to get way more nervous.' "
But that concert marked a turning point for Kinchla.
"It's such an amazing place to play and it was such an amazing night. I had been really hard on myself up to that point and I thought, 'If I can't enjoy this, then maybe I should think about a change of career.'"
Three years later, Kinchla believes he has given as much to the band as it has given to him.
"I am probably the most anal person in the band - I like perfection, knowing my parts, having them down - and I think that was good for them. It rubbed off a little on them. And the whole spontanaity of the band really rubbed off on me. I've learned to pull back and let things happen."
The fresh perspectives provided by Kinchla and Wilson (not to mention the 150 pounds lost by formerly enormous lead singer John Popper) have energized the band, Kinchla says.
Wilson thinks they've earned the right to shuck the "new guys" stigma.
"I don't think there are a lot of people left who are waiting for us to win them over."