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Poppin, rockin’ blues

Wren Wertin
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A jam-happy group, they’re poppy, rocking and bluesy all at the same time. Though the early ’90s saw them in the High Country often, tonight’s show is the first since 1993. They’re touring in support of a new live album, produced by drummer Brendan Hill; they’ll be on the road throughout the fall.

Though they’ve sold millions of albums, at their core they’re still a group of friends who started jamming together in high school in 1988. The four original members, John Popper (lead vocals, harmonica and guitar), Chan Kinchla (guitar), Brendan Hill (drums and percussion) and Bobby Sheehan (bass), used to wile away their teen-aged days in their parents’ basements, calling themselves Blues Band. Popper had plans to become a comedian, but after hearing the Blues Brothers and Jimi Hendrix he picked up the harmonica, wanting to make it sound like Hendrix’s guitar. By all accounts he succeeded.

Riding the momentum from small-club success to their first record deal, the foursome conquered the radio. In 1991 Popper started a new project, The H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) festival, and invited a few relative unknowns to play in it, such as Phish, Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic and Big Head Todd and the Monsters. By 1995 they had accepted their first Grammy and were on their way to the still-bigger time.

In 1999 the group was devastated when Sheehan died suddenly in New Orleans.

“Brendan, John and I talked about whether to go on,” said Chan. “After losing someone so close to us, we realized breaking up the family that remained would only compound the tragedy. So, without a doubt, we decided to carry on.”

“We knew that what we were doing was worth surviving for,” said Popper. “We didn’t want to become stuck trying to recreate a happy time in our lives – we wanted to keep growing. The best music comes that way.”

They auditioned several bassists, but ended up sticking close to home when they chose Chan’s brother, Tad Kinchla, to take the spot. From the beginning they asked him to play like himself, not like Sheehan.

“It was very helpful having the band state to me quite clearly that they wanted me to be my own voice,” said Tad. “Starting the process with this input allowed me to concentrate on pursuing my own sound. This, I

believe, introduced the band to a new style and with that a new bag of tricks that I would say has lead to both the band’s and my own growth.”

Despite Tad’s excitement of being with the group it took a little getting used to. Whereas he used to be in the audience, listening to the groove of the songs, he was suddenly on stage.

“At first it was hard doing gigs with the band because I found myself listening to the music live,” he explained. “I realized if the bass dropped out no one will be playing. Since then I think I’ve gotten more accustomed to hearing my bass sound with the band.”

Soon after Tad came on board, another addition was made to the line-up in Ben Wilson, a keyboardist. Though Blues Traveler often had guests on the keys, they wanted to push beyond the four-piece concept. Three years later, they’re all old hands at playing together. Sometimes on an unprofessional level.

“One time John, Ben and I ended up at a karaoke bar on Sunset Strip in

Hollywood,” recalled Tad. “The place was jamming with about a thousand people and the karaoke was running hot. We ended up on stage billed as Ben and the Wilson Five doing the classic Lionel Ritchie tune “Dancing in the Streets.’ Needless to say we let John take lead, Ben and I we’re throbbing the choruses and we had two attractive women as dance back up. It was a great image.”

Blues Traveler might not bust out any Lionel Ritchie tunes for their concert, but they’ll probably be coaxed into playing “Run Around,” the song they won a Grammy for.

Tickets are still available for the concert. For tickets or more information call Mojo Music, B-Side Records, Bob’s House of Music or the Ford Amphitheater Box Office at 476-2918. Gates open at 6 p.m. and music starts at 7.

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.


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