Blues Traveler celebrates its thirtieth year as a band in 2017. Founding members Chan Kinchla and John Popper have known each other since their teen years in Princeton, New Jersey. Kinchla says that the band's longevity in part comes down to the bonds the band members forged in those early years.
“When you’ve known each other since you’ve were 13-14, there’s a lot of bonds that go a little deeper than when you meet people in your twenties,” the guitarist says. “So if there’s friction or something like, we have that relationship to fall back on.”
Blues Traveler attracted a large crowd in its adopted home of New York City in the late 1980s. That period was the height of image-conscious bands who were often as remarkable for their fashion sense as their songs. Blues Traveler focused only on its music and Kinchla says that was an early stumbling block in the group's path toward success. If record companies weren't going to make the band members stars, they decided they'd focus on building a following based on music.
“We were into the Grateful Dead, the jam thing. All these cool seventies bands like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix,” Kinchla recalls. “We just focused on that and just became so big in New York City that the record companies kind of came around. But they had no idea what to do with us, so it was kind of an interesting time to get signed. So what we did was fell back on playing live and creating that relationship with our fans and with ourselves. Eventually, enough people would come to the shows that record companies couldn’t really ignore us.”
Blues Traveler arrived in New York City just as its local music scene was finding new legs. Some of that came down to the change in the Big Apple's cabaret laws.
“If you had more than three people on stage, you need a special license,” Kinchla says. “A lot of times we would come in and a sax player would be sitting at the bar with a long table just to skirt this rule. Right when we moved in, that law was rescinded, so that meant every little dive bar on the Lower East Side could have bands. We played five nights a week for no money at all.”
The group soon became a regular attraction at Wetlands Preserve, a nightclub that attracted a number of acts that would become central to the music of the 1990s: Spin Doctors, Chris Whitley and Joan Osborne were all swimming in the same pool. Blues Traveler gigged at Wetlands virtually every other week as its fan base grew.
By 1990, Blues Traveler had released its self-titled debut album and was earning a reputation among college students as a must-see live act. The band also became friends with Phish and Widespread Panic, playing shows with both groups to impressive crowds. Two more albums followed, including 1991’s Travelers and Thieves and Save His Soul (1993) but neither of those broke the band into the mainstream.
Blues Traveler may have been one of the last acts of its era to benefit from a slow-build, the idea that a group could be developed over a series of recordings rather than needing a hit out of the gate. Acts such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana had climbed to the top of their charts early in the careers, but Blues Traveler wouldn’t hit pay dirt until 1994’s four.
Earlier the following year, the band’s label, A&M, issued the Popper-penned “Run-Around” as a single. By the middle of the year, one couldn’t turn on the radio or MTV without hearing the tune.
“It was a blast,” Kinchla says of the song’s rise into the charts. “At the same time, it was kind of jarring for our fan base. We’d had kind of a personal relationship with ‘em and then all of a sudden there was this huge influx of people that just knew a song or two. I think there was a positive and negative to all that. But I would recommend to anyone to have a smash hit single and do Saturday Night Live and tour around the world.”
The group’s recorded output has remained consistently strong since the 1990s, with 2015’s Blow up the Moon serving as the most recent studio affair. The record saw Blues Traveler collaborate with Jewel, Bowling for Soup and Hanson. The record was indicative of the unit’s willingness to take risks.
More recently, Kinchla, his brother Tad (bass), drummer Brendan Hill, keyboardist Ben Wilson and Popper have been working up a new album. There was talk of a live album to celebrate the 30-year anniversary, but new material quickly took hold. “We were game to write new Blues Traveler music,” he says. “This record is being done very much like the old days. We’re recording in May and touring in April, so we’ll probably try out a bunch of those new songs in April.”
Blues Traveler performs at The Orpheum Theatre Sunday night.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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