Blues Traveler spreads the art of the jam
Seminal second-wave jam band Blues Traveler celebrates its 30th anniversary with a tour that kicked off on Oct. 11 in Connecticut and runs through the end of February. A studio album recorded in Nashville is due out next year, and Blues Traveler has been introducing the new material to audiences while delivering its trademark extended improvisations on songs spanning the band’s history. Frontman/harmonica virtuoso John Popper is sufficiently recovered from 2016 spinal surgery, giving the musicians the green light to celebrate three decades in proper fashion—that is, playing live, which Popper and drummer Brendan Hill did together for several years prior to hooking up with guitarist Chan Kinchla and bassist Bobby Sheehan in 1987.
Popper, whose initial inspiration was Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd, left the band’s native Princeton, N.J., for music studies at the New School in Manhattan, and was soon followed to the city by his bandmates. Their timing couldn’t have been better. Laws restricting live music in clubs and bars had recently been lifted, and they could play open-mic nights as much as they wanted. The Grateful Dead had an MTV hit in 1987 with “Touch of Grey,” leading to a renewed interest in bands that took audiences on live musical explorations.
Blues Traveler steadily expanded its following after the release of its 1990 self-titled album, and joined forces with Phish and Widespread Panic for the original H.O.R.D.E festival tour in 1992. The three bands would become the giants of the emerging jam-band culture that flourished throughout the ’90s, but Blues Traveler’s songs on record had the tightest hooks. The band would score its biggest pop hit with “Run-Around” from Four in 1994.
Success led to a wider audience and assured Blues Traveler’s destiny as a concert draw for years to come, but 1997’s Straight On Till Morning just missed the top 10. The band was dealt a blow when Sheehan passed away in 1999, shortly after Popper had to have an angioplasty. Popper recovered, and Blues Traveler recruited Kinchla’s brother Tad on bass as well as keyboardist Ben Wilson. They also went independent in the post-Napster music industry, delivering a series of albums including 2005’s Jay Bennett-produced Bastardos! in their own time, on their own terms.
Popper is far slimmer than he was during the “Run-Around” days, and the band has enthusiastically approached its current tour and latest recording by all outward appearances. The next release, as yet untitled, has been described by Chan Kinchla as an “old-school” rock album, and songs with set-list titles such as “Ode,” “Wolf Is Bumpin’” and “She Becomes My Way” have been road-tested during the initial anniversary shows. Blues Traveler mixes up their sets from show to show, so fans wanting to hear Popper’s blistering solo on a cover of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” may want to stand up front and let their feelings known.
House of Blues at Mandalay Bay, 7 p.m. Nov. 7, starting at $29.50 plus tax and fee, 18+. 800.745.3000 Ticketmaster