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Blues Traveler's Deadhead Connection
by Steve Hochman
Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA
Sep 20th, 1991

If you've never really understood the Deadheads - the legion of Grateful Dead fans who follow the band from town to town - don't look now: Here come the Travelers.

Thats the name taken by the similarly loyal fans of the young New York band Blues Traveler. Like the Deadheads, the Travelers follow their troubadours from show to show, through the phenomenon hasn't achieved the level of the colorful, mobile subculture of its hippie-originated model.

Still, the Travelers' number is steadily growing.

"They're bored, and I think they're fans of real music." said Blues Traveler frontman John Popper, 24. "I keep getting surprised everywhere we go how many there are, but I decided it would be good luck not to count them."

Blues Traveler, which headlines the Palace tonight, sounds little like the Dead, though Popper - a singer and harmonica phenom - admits to a similar musical philosophy.

"Here's our shtick line to describe our music: It's our garage band attempt at our appreciation of jazz improvisation through the reality of rock 'n' roll," he said, speaking by phone from a Phoenix hotel room. "Rock has its own vocabulary, but you can approach it with freedom."

One other thing the group has in common with the Dead is a Graham connection: It is managed by David Graham, son of San Francisco rock promoter-manager Bill Graham, who has been associated with the Dead since 1966.

"The music both we and the Dead play is what Bill Graham calls pelvic music," Popper said. "It makes you dance, and there are a lot of kids who like that fun. But that's where the comparison [with the Dead] ends."

Blues Traveler actually owes its beginnings to comedy more than music. Popper says he was first exposed to blues-rock via John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd's Blues Brother routines.

"I wanted to be a comedian, but I wasn't funny enough to do it every night," Popper said. "So through listening to the Blues Brothers I found out about [blues harmonica player] Paul Butterfield, and through him Elmore James and then through that I heard about Jimi Hendrix. And when I first put on Hendrix's 'Voodoo Chile,' that was the day I knew I wanted to be a musician."

Shortly after Popper was graduated from high school in Princeton, N.J., in 1986, he and schoolmates Chan Kinchla, Bobby Sheehan and Brendan Hill (playing guitar, bass and drums, respectively) formed a band. They eventually set up shop in New York and began playing in out-of-the-way bars, at first by necessity, later by design.

"We'd get kicked out of the blues bars," said Popper, noting that the band's free-form approach often deviates from blues traditions.

"We found this great place, the Nightingale Bar. It wasn't a blues bar. It was an anything bar. The R&B bands that played there showed us how to work the crowd.

A debut album, Blues Traveler, was released by A&M Records last year, and the band went on the road, playing clubs across the country and then landing the opening slot on an Allman Brothers tour.

"That was like going to school," Popper said of the Allman stint.

Gregg Allman was impressed enough to sit in on organ and vocals on "Mountain Cry," a song on the new album, Travelers & Thieves. Meanwhile, the band's legend grew at home, where it centers a new rock community that also features its "sister band," the Spin Doctors, and in pockets around the country.

Along the way, it's picking up more fellow Travelers - and the reputation that goes with having such a Dead-icated following.

"I never considered myself a Deadhead, though I always liked the Dead," Popper said. "I was flattered by the comparisons, but it's already gotten to be too much. But I guess it'll go on until we do something to change it."