July 30, 2009

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New directions for Blues Traveler
North Hollywood Shootout tour hits Concord
By Katie Beth Ryan music@hippopress.com

Blues Traveler’s harmonica-driven hit “Run-Around” was inescapable in the mid-’90s, earning the then up-and-coming New Jersey band fronted by John Popper significant radio play and a Grammy Award. But several setbacks befell the band at the turn of the century: original bassist Bobby Sheehan died of a drug overdose in 1999, and the band was released from A&M Records three years later. It wasn’t an easy situation for new bassist Tad Kinchla, young brother of guitarist Chan Kinchla, and new keyboardist Ben Wilson, formerly of Big Dave and the Ultrasonics, to enter in 2000, but Blues Traveler has pushed on through lineup and label changes with its upbeat sound. The band is now touring in support of North Hollywood Shootout, released on Verve Records last year, including a local stop at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord on Thursday, July 30, at 7:30 p.m. Via phone from Blacksburg, Va., where the band took part in the annual Floyd Fest music festival, Wilson took time to reflect on the band’s post-“Run-Around” journeys, its musical direction, and Bruce Willis’ contribution to the new CD.

From what I’ve heard, the new record sounds like it’s delivering your trademark uplifting sound.
That’s good to know. I think there’s an energy to our music that comes from, to a certain extent, the fact that we play live so much. We’re very in tune to a live situation when we write, [and] I think that comes out. For a couple of records, we spent time going out of our way…really playing up the pop sounds of Blues Traveler, you know, the side of us that got “Run-Around” and “Hook” and all of that…. Although we grew up as rockers, you can’t get away from that pop sound from the minute you’re born in this country…and John is an incredibly melodic guy, and some people like his voice, some people don’t. But he’s a great singer. His melodic ideas are developed and I think he really kind of brings that to bear in all our music. And like I said, when we play live, we really want crowd involvement. We want the crowd to get involved, we feed off that energy ….

Blues Traveler’s had to deal with setbacks, including some record label shuffling. How are things going with Verve?
This is our first record with Verve. The whole record business is in a weird state. Nobody knows what the hell is going on. We really like the people that we’re dealing with there. Every band wishes that their label would spend more money and give them more airplay, but the facts of the case are, you put a song out there and if in a certain amount of time it doesn’t connect, then you gotta move on. You can’t just be wasting money on stuff. In the old days, s----y records sold millions of copies. I guess you could still argue that a lot of s----y records sell a lot, but there’s just not as much leeway.

You came to Blues Traveler after the band’s bassist passed away. Was it difficult coming on after a shakeup like that?
I think it would have been difficult regardless…. Unfortunately, I came into a band that wanted to change because they’d lost a guy, and I don’t know if they hadn’t lost a guy whether they would have made that change. He was really a central part of the band, a big fan favorite. He really had an unusual style about him and it kind of added to the Blues Traveler quirkiness. …. I think there was more pressure on Chad, the bass player who had to replace him, than there was on me. There were a lot of keyboard parts in the original records that I could easily just go back to. The guys didn’t want me to do that. They wanted me to just do what I did. If they liked it they would say so, and if they didn’t they would say so. I think for me it was tricky coming into the band because of the stature the band had … I wanted to fit in, I wanted to make it a blast. I guess it worked, because here I am.

The band is still very closely associated with “Run-Around” and “Hook.” How do you find that long-time fans are responding to newer material?
I think the problem with having a big hit ... is that you’re constantly compared to them, and there’s an expectation that you’re going to sound a particular way. And as fun as the roller coaster ride up is, if you’re not able to sort of follow that up immediately with hits of comparable success, there’s going to be a downside. .... I think that when Tad and I came in 2000, with the release of “The Bridge” and the shows that followed, I think there was a reaction somewhat among the fans. It was a different-sounding band and it was headed in a slightly different direction and some of them didn’t like it and that’s their right. If you look out there, some of the younger brothers and sisters are people who had bought Four are now out there, and when we’re out there playing that song, they’re pumped. And there are the long-haired, hippie-looking kids who, when the song came out in the mid-’90s, would have sat down on their hands in protest, because they wanted to hear the deeper material. And now those are the kids who don’t know the deeper material but they jump up and down at the songs that they know, because they’ve been hearing them on the radio for 15 years. It’s one of those cyclical things, and you’re just happy to see young people out there dancing.

You guys decided to give free tickets away to all military veterans.
In the ’90s, before I came on, the band went on a tour of military bases with the USO in Korea, Japan and overseas. After I got into the band, we did something in Bosnia, and then we did an Air Force tour that took us to Turkey and around a lot of the bases in Europe. And then John has been to Iraq…. I think the focus of the two wars we’ve been fighting for the last two years, it’s important to remember that these people are out there doing stuff that allow us to sit around and talk on our iPhones to people who want to hear my opinion about something. In a lot of places, that wouldn’t be possible. And it’s just a shout-out. The other day, we went to Walter Reed [Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C.] and met with these 21-year-old kids. One just had his … hand blown off. I was never brave enough to do that. It’s just recognition of the job and the sacrifices that these kids make to do that. I think it’s non-partisan, non-denominational. 

What do you guys [credit for] the band’s cohesion over all these years?
Desperation [laughs]. That’s an interesting question. I think there’s a public perception that John is the boss and orders everybody around. The reality is that it’s very thoughtful decision-making that goes on. Early on, there was a spirit among the guys of “come hell or high water, we’re going to make this thing happen.” They had success at a relatively young age and they just kept going out there and doing it, because they loved it and they loved playing together. There’s a willingness to work everything out. But now, what the hell else are we going to do?

Can you explain the thinking behind the Bruce Willis piece on “North Hollywood Shootout”?
I don’t think there was any thinking behind it. I think Bruce and John were talking on the phone one night, and they said, “Hey, let’s do something together.” The next thing you know, we were jamming on a blues riff and Bruce Willis is ranting over the top of it. It was awesome. It was a ton of fun, and it seemed like a good way to end the record.