Blues Traveler travels new path
December 6, 2007
ASPEN On the album Cover Yourself, a tribute to the jam-rock band Blues Traveler, the musicians take all kinds of liberties with the tributees material. The electric guitar of Blues Travelers Chan Kinchla is replaced largely by the acoustic six-string. The rhythm of a familiar song like But Anyway, which gave the band its first national recognition, in 1990, is drastically altered; other songs, like The Hook, a hit from the massive-selling 1994 album Four, is reconstructed nearly beyond recognition.There are also at least two unmistakably familiar elements on the CD: the virtuosic harmonica playing and the rapid-fire vocals that aim to squeeze as many syllables into a line of music as is possible. No one but John Popper himself, Blues Travelers mouth-harpist and singer, is capable of making those distinctive sounds.The band doing the covering on Cover Yourself is, of course, Blues Traveler. The album, released in October, is the 2007 version of Blues Traveler revisiting the bands 20-year cache of songs, and giving the tunes different flavors and tastes.The project began as an iTunes-sponsored initiative. We were going to bang out the songs in a few hours, said Kinchla, who co-founded the band, with fellow current members Popper and drummer Brendan Hill, in 1987 in Princeton, N.J. Once the ball was rolling, however, the band seized the opportunity to get comfortable in the studio, and rework songs whose forms had been solidified over a few thousand live performances. When we got into it, we got enthralled with the idea of these in a different way. It was one of the coolest learning processes taking songs youve played for 20 years and really looking at them in a new way.Part of the project was to open up the process to outsiders. The song list was chosen by fans, who voted via Internet. The band invited a slate of guest artists, including harmonica-player and singer G. Love, guitarists Charlie Sexton and David Garza, and a horn section of Mike Hoffer and David Lobel, to participate in the recording sessions in Austin, Texas, which has become Blues Travelers center of operations since its members moved to various corners of the country.By now, Blues Traveler has become accustomed to reinvention.
When the group started out, it actually did have a heavy blues element. But by the time they became a fixture in the rock clubs of downtown New York City, in the late 80s, they were a full-on rock vehicle, driven by the outrageously expressive Popper and the only relatively less exuberant Kinchla.The next big shift came when Popper, in 1992, invented something called the H.O.R.D.E. festival. The group tour whose full name is the horrific Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere was formed when Popper decided that a bunch of similar-minded bands like Widespread Panic and Phish could pool their talents and play to national audiences in amphitheaters rather than in regional clubs. He was right; the H.O.R.D.E. tour spawned the jam-band movement, which has arguably become the biggest and best thing in todays live rock n roll. Even after the H.O.R.D.E. sputtered and ended in 1998, several of the participating groups Blues Traveler among them found they had become some of the biggest attractions on the touring circuit.While the H.O.R.D.E. put Blues Traveler (and Medeski, Martin & Wood, Big Head Todd & the Monsters, Govt Mule and others) in a comfortable place in front of thousands of spinning hippies, in venues like Red Rocks and Jones Beach Amphitheater on Long Island, 1995 found the band in a most unexpected spot. Runaround, a simple, peppy song from Four caught fire on national radio and MTV, and Blues Traveler became unlikely pop stars.The next turn in the road was a tragic one. In 1999, Blues Traveler bassist Bobby Sheehan died in New Orleans, throwing the bands very existence into doubt. But it didnt take long for the surviving members to decide to keep Blues Traveler going.That was a tough situation, going forward, said Kinchla by phone from Santa Cruz where, the night before, he injured his ankle in an 8-foot leap from the stage and not quite nailing the landing.But there was this great world of music wed created. We knew Bobby would have wanted us to carry on.The band didnt move straight ahead, but took a turn, adding keyboardist Ben Wilson to the group. Ironically, it had been Sheehan who had pushed earlier for supplementing the bands sound with keyboards. And after holding a casting call for bassists, Blues Traveler found one in its own backyard: Tad Kinchla, Chans younger brother. The new members were given strict orders to be their own musical selves and help bring the band to a new place.When Tad and Ben came aboard, we made it clear we didnt want them to re-create what Blues Traveler had been, said Kinchla. We wanted them to help us evolve into a new Blues Traveler. For the old guys, it was fun to have those new influences.Cover Yourself was a means toward making a quantum leap in adding a new dimension to Blues Traveler.The Mountains Win Again gets a makeover as a slow, spare, acoustic meditation. (The songs, written by Sheehan, was inspired by Aspen and his girlfriend who lived here. Sheehan often headed for extended stays in Aspen once Blues Traveler ended its tours.) Runaround retains its zip, but gets a new dynamic courtesy of a horn section. Carolina Blues gets a Delta feel, thanks to guest guitarist Charlie Sexton, and Just For Me has G. Love delivering a rap interlude.The songs have evolved over the years on stage, said Kinchla, but they were based on the original recordings. These, we very consciously brainstormed. We listened to a lot of our favorite acoustic acts Paul Simon, the Shins and strategized how we were going to do them.Runaround, strangely enough, was the last and toughest song to re-create. Its our signature song; everyone knows it. Youve got to really stretch it to change it. Finally, we came up with this Motown beat. Thats our Motown revue.The re-recording sessions are also having an effect on Blues Traveler as a live act. When the band plays Saturday in Aspen a free, 6:30 p.m. show at the base of Aspen Mountain, as part of the Aspen Skiing Co.s Hi-Fi Concert Series listeners can count on hearing several of the new arrangements. Kinchla predicts that some of them will be part of their repertoire forever.Its nice to have a place to go to thats different, he said. You always want something different different keys, different tempos. Kinchla said that the band is set to record new material in January. Some of the new songs are written with an approach similar to the Cover Yourself arrangements; they are also planning to add looping techniques to their studio arsenal. We really learned a lot about ourselves as a band, which hopefully gives us more depth.One lost aspect of Blues Traveler unearthed in the process of making Cover Yourself is … the blues. Several of the tunes Carolina Blues, The Mountains Win Again hew close to true blues form and feel, more so than the band has in decades. They are finally fulfilling the promise of their name.When you slow things down and give them more space, those elements come out more. When you speed up the blues, it becomes rock n roll, said Kinchla. Once upon a time, in high school, we really were a lot firstname.lastname@example.org