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River Roots Live: Seeing God for a Minute – Blues Traveler, August 20, 9:30 p.m. PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 03 August 2011 08:40

(Other coverage of River Roots Live 2011 can be found here.)

Blues Traveler

Blues Traveler guitarist and songwriter Chan Kinchla calls the band’s 2005 album ¡Bastardos! “our transitional record,” and he admitted it has been a long transition.

Following three gold albums, the group – fronted by vocalist, harmonica player, and songwriter John Popper – had a top-10 hit in the mid-1990s with Four’s “Run-Around,” and the record itself went platinum six times, no small feat for a jam band. Straight on Till Morning (from 1997) also went platinum, but the death in 1999 of bassist Bobby Sheehan spurred a process of reinvention that might finally be over.

Blues Traveler will be headlining River Roots Live on Saturday, August 20, and as the band prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, it’s planning big things. A retrospective package – including B sides and live material – is slated for March release, Kinchla said in a phone interview last week. (“The B sides have turned into almost a pretty good album all by themselves.”) And a new record is in the works for the summer. That, he said, will be Blues Traveler’s attempt at a great album.

Of course, most artists aim for greatness, but Kinchla explained that Blues Traveler needed time to develop a new identity with the addition of Sheehan’s replacement – Kinchla’s brother Tad – and keyboardist Ben Wilson.

That process, he said, is “like teaching an old dog new tricks. It takes longer.” And “when we got the new guys, we really wanted to create almost a new entity.”

On stage, Kinchla said, the band really hit its stride in the period from 2005 to 2007. But getting comfortable in the studio has taken longer.

With 2001’s Bridge, he said, “we were really trying to re-create our ’90s success. And it sounds very much like an older Blues Traveler record. [But] trying to write pop hits for Blues Traveler is not necessarily what we should be focusing on. Those kind of come along.” Kinchla described Bridge and 2003’s Truth Be Told as the old Blues Traveler with keyboards.

There’s nothing wrong with that, as the All Music Guide noted: “Blues Traveler did very well in the new millennium, crafting records that are in many ways stronger than the albums they made when they were just building their audience in the early ’90s.”

But after those recordings, Kinchla said, the band began a process of experimentation: “Once we got out of that major-record-company environment after that album [Bridge], we had a lot more freedom. ... to hang ourselves or do whatever we wanted.”

That adventurousness is evident on the sonic palette of ¡Bastardos!, which clearly sounds like a band trying to remake itself. (The All Music Guide called it “the richest, most diverse album they’ve ever done, and quite arguably their best.”) On 2008’s North Hollywood Shootout, the ensemble used its signature jams as the starting points for songs – a new way of writing.

“It was a necessary process for us ... ,” Kinchla said. “At the time, we were still getting our feet under us as to what the new lineup really was. It takes a while for a band to really gel. ... Those records helped us find out who we were.”

Because they were made cheaply, “it’s not the end of the world if it’s not the classic all-time album,” Kinchla said. “I think that leads to a little more experimentation. At this point, I think we’ve done enough experimenting. I think we’re really focused on making something that’s really accessible. Lord knows we could use a hit.”

One problem with independence, Kinchla said, is the absence of “outside ears”: “Sometimes it’s good to have a record company leaning over your back a little bit. There were some good things about those [albums made without the backing of major labels], but at the same time we could have used a little more ... feedback.”

Most Blues Traveler studio records, he said, have tended to feature three or four strong songs, and some good jammy material. But “it’s ... three or four songs short of really having a great record, in general.”

In preparation for its next album, Blues Traveler spent a month in Texas over the winter working with songwriters including Ron Sexsmith, Alejandro Escovedo, Chris Barron (of Spin Doctors), Aaron Beavers (of Shurman), and Carrie Rodriguez. They tried out songs written with Blues Traveler in mind, and also sought assistance on their own material. Those sessions yielded roughly two dozen songs, and Kinchla said the new album will be recorded in November and December. “We brought more people into the mix,” he said. “We know who we are, and we know where we need help, and we’re not insecure about that.”

The goal, Kinchla said, is a concise, solid album in the traditional sense – 11 or 12 songs, less than 50 minutes.

Don’t take that, however, as a sign that the band is abandoning its trademark improvisation. The “traveler” of Blues Traveler comes from the demon Gozer in Ghostbusters, and the guitarist compared the transcendent moments of live performance to spiritual visitations. When Sheehan was alive and the band was a quartet, Kinchla said, “sometimes it would feel like a fifth entity entered the room. ... ‘Oh my God! He’s here!’”

He also likened the phenomenon to “seeing God for a minute. ... We’re at the point now where you have those little magic moments all the time.”

For more information on Blues Traveler, visit BluesTraveler.com.


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