Blues Traveler - Biography
Blues Traveler were never much of a studio band. Their sound was better suited for the stage, where songs that lasted three minutes on record could be extended to fifteen through engaging, improvised jams. And yet they had an undeniable appeal, whether it came from Popper's almost other-worldly voice, the way his harmonica breaks soared over the top of the mix, the tightness of the band backing him, or a combination of the three. In 1994, they found themselves nearing the top of the mainstream charts with the hit “Run-Around,” which sold a staggering amount of copies of the accompanying LP, Four, and even won the band a Grammy. After that success and the subsequent come-down album that followed it, the band lost a member to drugs, lost their label and lost the obligation to come up with hits. By the turn of the century, Blues Traveler had a newfound sense of purpose, one that allowed them to release three albums in a row that, though largely ignored, also happened to be three of their best.
Blues Traveler formed in 1988 in Princeton, New Jersey, where all four original members - Popper (vocals, harmonica), Bobby Sheehan (bass), Brendan Hill (drums) and Chan Kinchla (guitar) -
attended Princeton High. They started out as more of a jam band than the blues-pop act they would slowly morph into upon their commercial breakthrough. Their songs were lengthy and contained extended musical passages that recalled the Grateful Dead. Their self-titled debut arrived in May of 1990 on A&M Records. One year later, they were back with Travelers and Thieves (1991 A&M).
The band has faced its share of hardships, bad luck and tragedy over the years. One major setback occurred in 1992, when Popper was seriously wounded in a car accident. For months, performing live with the band was out of the question. As he made his slow recovery, Popper eventually began using a wheelchair. Finding that he could sing and play the harmonica well enough from the chair, he resumed playing concerts with the band.
In April of the next year, Popper was walking again and Blues Traveler released their third album and first to chart, Save His Soul (1993 A&M), which peaked at 72, boosted by the number 32 mainstream rock single, “Conquer Me.” The big break came with their fourth album, Four (1994 A&M), even though it at first seemed like a commercial failure. Released in September, it went virtually unnoticed by mainstream audiences until the next year when “Run-Around” was released as a single and became a massive hit. 1995 became the year of Blues Traveler, with subsequent singles “Hook” and “The Mountains Win Again” also gaining attention. Meanwhile, Four peaked at number eight on the Billboard 200 and went platinum five times over. That year, “Run-Around” won its well-deserved Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
As a stopgap release to capitalize on the sudden success (or simply to put out anything while they bit their nails in the studio wondering how to follow a Grammy-winning, quintuple platinum album), Blues Traveler released the live album, Live From the Fall (1996 A&M), in the summer. The next year, they unveiled their follow-up to Four. Of course it did not match the staggering success of its predecessor, but Straight on till Morning (1997 A&M) was actually an entirely worthy follow-up. Popper and Blues Traveler were bluesy, jam-based songwriters at heart. They had occasionally happened upon some great hooks in the past, but they were not the craftsmen of catchy pop that their new fans expected them to be. And while Straight On revealed that weakness, it also highlighted the strength of the band, namely their ability to create a blues-jam that wouldn't be out of place on mainstream radio. The new album sold admirably, peaking at number 11 with one single, “Canadian Rose” (the music video for which featured Denise Richards) reaching number four on the mainstream rock charts.
After touring, the band took a break and Popper released his first solo album, Zygote, in 1999. Shortly thereafter, Popper again experienced health problems when the chest pains he'd been feeling for months resulted in an angioplasty. He came out of the operation fully recovered, but was dealt another blow just weeks later. After a night of partying and recording with friends in his apartment, the 31-year-old Sheehan died of an apparent overdose, cocaine and heroin among the drugs found in his system.
After a while, Blues Traveler decided to carry on, finding a new bassist in Kinchla's younger brother, Tad. A new album, Bridge (A&M) came out in May of 2001. The album was a relaxed effort from the band, but markedly better than Straight On. The effortlessness of Bridge was probably the result of the band's loss of their mainstream audience, which left them free to make a simple, solid album that nonetheless managed to break the top 100. One year later, the group released a live album, Live: What You and I Have Been Through (2002 BMG), showcasing the extended jams that they were best at. After adding keyboardist Ben Wilson to their lineup, Blues Traveler were faced with yet another hurdle. A&M Records, their label for over ten years, dropped them. Perhaps this was actually the best thing for the band, as they were quickly signed by the large UK-based indie label, Sanctuary, known for signing established bands with big fan bases. That description fit Blues Traveler to a tee.
Wilson especially shines on the band's next LP, Truth Be Told (2003 Sanctuary). His keyboards blend so naturally with Popper's harmonica, it's a wonder why they waited so long to recruit a keyboardist. The album did not chart, but charting was far from the band's concerns at that point. They had made their best album since Four and didn’t need mainstream radio to tell them so. The band headed out on tour to support the album, which resulted in their third and best live album, Live on the Rocks (2004-Sanctuary). Nearly half of the album's songs come from Truth Be Told, a testament to the band's faith in their new material.
Blues Traveler left Sanctuary in favor of the New York-based indie, Vanguard Records. On September 13th, 2005, the label released the band's eighth studio album, ¡Bastardos!, yet another document of their constantly improving tightness as a band and their continuing competence as songwriters. It reached number 49 on the independent albums chart. They followed up with a collection of mostly acoustic re-imaginings of their old songs called Cover Yourself (2007 C3), which included versions of “Run Around” and “Hook” as well as more obscure choices. In 2008, the band were back with a tenth studio LP, North Hollywood Shootout (Verve Forecast).