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Road Scholars
Blues Traveler took the long route to the top 10
by Daniel Durchholz
Request Magazine, National
Oct 1st, 1995

"Je n'ai pas de pantalons!" exclaims John Popper, taking his place at center stage. "Sorry. That's all the French I know." Loosely translated, the phrase means "I'm not wearing pants!" and may seem unorthodox as a greeting unless you're actor Hugh Grant. But that's how the wry, hulking singer says hello to the throng of 10,000 or so awaiting his performance with Blues Traveler at Parc Therrien in Verdun, Quebec, just outside of Montreal.

The occasion is Another Roadside Attraction, a H.O.R.D.E.-like Hoserpalooza hosted by north-of-the-border superstars the Tragically Hip that will play in eight cities (of which this is the seventh) across the vast Canadian landscape in a scant 11 days. The emphasis of the festival is squarely on Canuck rock, with such featured acts as Spirit of the West, the Rheostatics, Eric's Trip and the Inbreds. Presumably, Blues Traveler, Matthew Sweet, and Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers were invited along to lend the lineup a hint of international flavor.

It's a gorgeous day, just warm and sunny enough to warrant the crowd's exposure of pallid Quebecois flesh. But when Blues Traveler kicks off its late-afternoon performance with "Alone," a dolorous plaint from the band's self-titled debut, the wind kicks up and the sky darkens. As the song stretches out into a 15-minute epic, the afternoon's only rain begins to fall, as if the band's hurricane-force jam had somehow conjured it. But the weather backs off for the remainder of the 70-minute set, which, due to the band's inglorious placement of fifth on the bill, is a severely truncated version of its marathon-length stateside shows.

A sizable portion of the crowd, which was lounging on blankets and browsing through the trinkets and tie-dye of the Hip-E village at the rear of the venue, surges forward and gamely moshes to the music, creating an odd juxtaposition of music and choreography as Popper inserts a chorus of Kenny Rogers' unhip anthem "The Gambler" into a double-time take of "Optimistic Thought." The fierce, accusatory "Love & Greed" suits the body surfers better, as does the hard-charging "Mulling It Over." But they are just as easily soothed by the band's heartfelt cover of John Lennon's "Imagine," to which many sing along and wave peace signs at the stage. For the finale, "Sweet Talking Hippie," Popper performs the sort of lightning-fast harmonica runs that have become his trademark, engaging guitarist Chan Kinchla in a fierce cutting contest.

Conspicuous in its absence from the set is "Run-Around," the runaway hit that earlier in the week had entered the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, pushing four, the band's matter-of-factly titled platinum-plus fourth album, which had preceded the single into the Top 10, even higher. "This is the first time we haven't played it in three or four months," Popper says later, lounging on one of the couches in the surprisingly roomy forward cabin of the band's touring bus.

"We found we were getting too caught up in it and it was starting to affect our lives," adds Kinchla, who's sitting opposite. "It felt so good not to play it, we're probably not going to play it a lot more."

"It's like, we're in Montreal, I don't know who the f--- knows who we are here," Popper says. "And dammit, we're going to be playing that single for the rest of our natural lives."

Back in the States, if anyone still doesn't know Blues Traveler, enlightenment is only the flick of a switch away. "Run-Around" is an across-the-board smash on radio formats ranging from modern rock to album rock to adult contemporary. And the video - which coyly makes an issue of the band members' decidedly un-videogenic visages by presenting a poser band lip-syncing the lyrics while the real band plays behind the stage curtain, Wizard of Oz-style - is a staple on MTV and VH1. "We were a band that didn't fit into any category," Kinchla says, shaking his head. "Now we're the band that fits into every category."

Needless to say, it wasn't always thus. Blues Traveler's earliest incarnation came in 1983, when Popper met drummer Brendan Hill in the Princeton, New Jersey, high school band. Popper, who was born in Cleveland and spent his preadolescent years in Stamford, Connecticut, was musically inclined from an early age. "I was singing harmony in church when I was three," he says. "I didn't think anything about it, but my parents thought, wow, that's pretty cool. So they shoved a cello in my hand when I was five, and I took piano when I was eight. Then there was tuba in the fourth grade - I know what you're thinking, give the fat kid a tuba - then guitar when I was 11, and saxophone and trumpet in high school. The only thing that sucked was that I had teachers, and I had to go through rudiments and learn stuff, and I didn't want to do that. With the harmonica, there were no teachers, so I could play it just the way I wanted to."

Early on, Popper was transfixed by the music of Jimi Hendrix, through whom he worked his way backward to Paul Butterfield, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Little Walter and John Coltrane. Inspired by the ridiculous as well as the sublime - at one point Popper aspired to be a comedian - he and Hill took their fledgling act's name from the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd film The Blues Brothers. They called it the Blues Band.

Kinchla started playing guitar at age six. After prevailing upon his parents to buy him one, he rarely put it down, save for when he took up sports, including football and lacross, which he played at Princeton High. But a knee injury cut short his playing days, and besides, he preferred whiling away the hours practicing music. Kinchla joined the Blues Band in 1985, and the musicians bonded one afternoon in a rehearsal session that band mythology has come to term the "black-cat jam."

"It was one of our seminal early jams where we really improvised and went unconscious," Kinchla says. "I don't know how long the jam lasted, but we were sitting on a hill afterwards, and listening to that tape just blew us away. And lo and behold, this black cat comes up and sits with us while we're listening to the music. We just took it as an omen."

Since then, Kinchla says, they have been visited by a black cat at virtually every momentous juncture in their career. As inspired by the omen as they are spooked by it, Kinchla had a black cat tattooed on his arm, and Popper wears a ring in the shape of the cat's head. The symbol also adorns the cover of four.

The band in its final form came together at last when bassist Bobby Sheehan joined in 1987. Popper graduated from Princeton High and moved to New York City to enroll in the music program at the New School for Social Research. Eventually, so did Hill and Sheehan. Kinchla, who is mostly self-taught, came along to attend New York University and to gig at night with the group under its new moniker, Blues Traveler. "Once we started making plans to move to New York, we realized the name wouldn't really cut it, 'cause there's hundreds and hundreds of them," Kinchla says. "So we were thinking that when the four of us played together, we sort of created this fifth entity, like somebody else was in the room."

"And Blues Entity sounded stupid," Popper says. "I was watching Ghostbusters, and they had Gozer the Traveler. At one point it says [he adopts a demonic voice], 'The Traveler has come.' So we put that together with Blues and got Blues Traveler. In a sense, Dan Aykroyd is responsible for both parts of our name."

With the band playing up to seven gigs a week in Greenwich Village bars and on the East Side, Popper, Hill and Sheehan found it increasingly difficult to attend their classes at the New School, so they dropped out. But the experience left a profound impression on them nonetheless. "It was where we learned about playing our music honestly and playing what we know," says Popper, who cites Arnie Lawrence, the music program's director and cofounder, as one of his primary gurus. "The thing about the New School at that time was that you could play with these incredible musicians. These huge jazz guys would come in and play with you. It was hands-on, no real requirements, an easy schedule. Now it's more like a real school and it's harder to bust out of there."

The quartet dedicated itself to the club and college circuits, developing a fanatical following and, eventually, a good-natured rivalry with the like-minded jam band Spin Doctors - an ironic twist, considering that the band's frontman, Chris Barron, was one of Popper's best high-school friends and that Popper was responsible for getting him the gig. "Chris and I used to sit around and write songs together," Popper says. "We both graduated in '86, and when the guys came to New York in '87, Chris was back in Princeton, living above the music store seducing young girls. They'd come to his window, and he would croon to them from his window with his guitar. That is a true story.

"We needed a fourth for our apartment, 'cause Brendan moved in with his girlfriend, and we thought Chris was pretty cool, so we talked him into coming to New York. That first year I was here I had formed a band with Brendan and [Spin Doctors guitarist] Eric Schenkman called the Trucking Company. When the rest of Blues Traveler arrived in town, there was this dilemma: What if I had two gigs on the same night? It never happened, but I worried about it, and I thought, let's get Chris into the band and I can take a night off if I want to. Before I knew it, I wasn't even in the Trucking Company anymore, and now it was called the Spin Doctors."

Soon enough, both bands had fans camping outside clubs to get into their shows and following them from gig to gig. Blues Traveler signed with Bill Graham Management in 1989, after the legendary rock impresario wrote them a letter saying his son, David, a Columbia University student who had seen them in New York, would like to manage them. "Bill said, could we please wait until he could come and see us in September," Popper recalls. "And when Bill Graham asked us to wait, you do. The first gig he got us was opening for the Neville Brothers at the Palladium - a whole different level than we were used to. The second gig was in front of 500,000 people at the Housing Now rally in Washington, D.C. You know, we hadn't played a club bigger than maybe a thousand people, and now we're in front of half a million. He knew how to impress us."

"Bill was a great teacher," Kinchla adds. "He taught us that the most important aspect of anything is the people that come and see you and the people that buy your records. If you're not making them happy, you've missed the point."

The band signed with A&M and released its debut in 1990 and Travelers & Thieves in 1991. Both sold respectably, but the group's main draw was still its live shows, which earned Blues Traveler comparisons to the Grateful Dead, albeit more for the slightly stoned, hippie vibe of the audience and the band's tendency to take off on extended jams than for any specific similarity of sound or sensibility.

Say what you will about the relative merits of the music made by the members of Blues Traveler and their jam-band brethren such as Spin Doctors, Phish, and Widespread Panic, among others, but the fact is that each of the bands in their own way helped renew interest in live music, which had all but disappeared in the videocentric '80s. "Live is where we live," Popper deadpans. "Both of those words have the letters L-I-V-E in them."

Perhaps Blues Traveler's most significant contribution to the music world thus far has been the annual H.O.R.D.E. tour, which recently wrapped up its fourth go-round, and which the band has helped since 1992. (The name is an acronym for the ungainly construction Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere.) But Popper says the original idea for the festival was a collaborative effort between all of the acts involved that first year. "Us, Phish, Widespread Panic, Spin Doctors, and Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit - we were all bands that lived on our live ticket sales. And every summer it was a pain in the ass to have to play indoors, but the only outdoor sheds held like 15,000 people. So the idea was obvious: to play a festival together and fill these sheds and make a big noise playing outdoors. The reason we've been left as caretakers was that each of these bands knew us, and I was the one who actually called the meeting. That's how I became the poster child of H.O.R.D.E."

Not lost on Popper & Co. was the early success of Perry Farrell's Lollapalooza tour, which preceded H.O.R.D.E. by a year. "I think we definitely stole from him as much as we could," Popper admits. "But I don't think Perry Farrell invented the idea. Bill Graham said he invented it with Live Aid, but the truth of the matter is, it's older than Woodstock.

"The difference between us and Lollapalooza is that Lollapalooza is trying to expose people to bands they wouldn't normally hear," Popper continues. "Their philosophy is to turn a skinhead on to rap and a rapper on to hardcore. I think it's a very brave thing to do. But we're convinced there's a fan out there who likes all kinds of music - who likes Led Zeppelin, who likes James Brown, R.E.M., P.I.L., John Coltrane, and N.W.A. That fan is one who likes live music, and that's who we're aiming at. The people we've got on this year's show - from Morphine to Taj Mahal, Sheryl Crow, Dionne Farris, Dave Matthews, the Black Crowes, Ziggy Marley - we've got just every kind of live band. That's the only combining factor. It's a good show to see."

Blues Traveler's commitment to the road and to the fans who come to see them has been tested on occasion, but never more than in 1992, when, in the middle of the sessions for the band's third album, Save His Soul, Popper crashed his motorcycle into a turning car while doing 70 miles an hour. The accident left him with a broken arm, leg, and hip, and landed him in a wheelchair for nearly two years. He still walks with a cane, though by now it's become as much an affectation as a necessity. "My latest trick is that I can walk up stairs again," he says. "I used to have to take a step then bring my bad leg up. Now I can walk right up. It's still a little weak, but getting stronger every day."

If such an accident can be said to have a positive side, it's that it strengthened the band's commitment to each other and bolstered Popper's inner resolve as well. "It hurt so much," he says. "It hurt beyond pain you can imagine. You don't know how much suffering you are capable of until something like this happens. Every time I thought I was at the end of my rope - it's not like you get this golden lifeline and something makes you feel better - a ton more shit gets dumped on you and what you had before suddenly doesn't seem so bad.

"Going through this helped me find out about God," he says quietly. "I mean, I always have kind of known about God, but with something like this, you see the extent you can depend on God.

"We're not born-again Christians or anything," he adds with some bluster. "I kind of always thought they were pussies."

Still, the spiritual connection he made jives well with his long-standing belief that music is essentially a spiritual medium. "It's a form of sorcery," he says. "I think it's actual magic that is tangible and can affect people. But people misunderstand it. They feel like they have some kinds of advantage by not partaking of it: 'Oh, that won't work on me.' But the whole point of art is to let it sweep over you and take you somewhere. It's a ride. There are some control freaks out there who say, 'It's not magic.' But it is if you believe in it."

If you're a member of Blues Traveler, you have to believe, because 1995 has been a magic year for the band. With "Run-Around" high on the charts and "Hook" prepared to follow, the band has dates scheduled through the end of the year and is recording them for a live album that is likely to be released next year. Beyond that, the band members are looking forward to doing something they've never really done before, save during Popper's injury: take a vacation.

"With the success of this record, we've kind of reached a milestone," Kinchla says. "We've been touring hard for the past two-and-a-half years, ever since John's leg has healed to a point where we could do it. By the end of this year, we'll have played in all 50 states, and we have a hit record. It's time to end this phase and get on with another."

"Also, there's the onset of our 30s," Popper says. "I'm 28, approaching 30, and you can't continue a pace like this forever. You have to start planning how to do this in a way that's more comfortable, and you also want to have time to build a life, maybe meet somebody and get married."

It's ironic that the only thing besides broken bones that can knock Blues Traveler off the road is success. But it's hard to deny the band members their higher aspirations. Or their lower ones, for that matter. Take Popper's for instance. "I think I'll slim down," he says flatly. "Maybe I'll play some tennis."