Blues Traveler Biography

New York, USA blues-rock quartet Blues Traveler are led by singer and harmonica player John Popper (29 March 1967, Cleveland, Ohio, USA). Some of the interest in the band in the mid-90s arose from the fact that Popper was a close friend of Eric Schenkman and Chris Barron, putting the pair (who subsequently formed the Spin Doctors) in contact with each other. Like the latter band and another set of friends, Phish, Blues Traveler share an appetite for extended jams, and at their best, the spontaneous musicianship that flows through their live sets can be inspired.

Popper first sought to play harmonica after being inspired by the movie The Blues Brothers, while at school in Connecticut. He initially intended to become a comedian; his physical appearance has prompted comparisons with actor John Belushi. When Popper moved to Princeton, New Jersey, to attend high school, he met drummer Brendan Hill (b. 27 March 1970), the duo calling themselves ‘The Blues Band’ by 1985. They were eventually joined by the younger, sports-orientated guitarist Chan Kinchla (b. 28 May 1969) until a knee injury cut short that career. He moved instead to New York, with Hill and Popper. Bass player Bobby Sheehan (d. 20 August 1999, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA) joined in 1987. Playing low-key gigs at Nightingale’s in the East Village, they eventually honed their organic rock into something a little more structured, changing their name to Blues Traveler at the end of the 80s.

Recording and selling demo tapes at gigs eventually brought a high-profile visitor to one of their gigs, Bill Graham. Through his influence they found themselves on bills with the Allman Brothers Band and Carlos Santana. Interest from A&M Records followed and the band recorded their debut at the end of 1989, for release early the following year. The band had been befriended at an early stage by Blues Brothers keyboard player Paul Shaffer, who, since his five minutes of celluloid fame, had become band leader and arranger for the David Letterman television show. Letterman’s sponsorship of the band stretched to over a dozen appearances in their first four years of existence, and was paramount in establishing their no-nonsense appeal. The appearances on Letterman were part of a huge promotional push that included over 800 gigs in three years. The only setback came in autumn 1992 when Popper was involved in a motorcycle accident which left him with major injuries. Save His Soul’s release was consequently delayed, but the incident necessitated a long hiatus from touring, until he took the stage again in April 1993 in a wheelchair. He continued in this vein for a second HORDE tour (Horizons Of Rock Developing Everywhere), an alternative to the Lollapalooza events, with Big Head Todd And The Monsters, among others.

A third stint was later undertaken with the Allman Brothers Band, whose Chuck Leavell joined Paul Shaffer in contributing to Four. The group then appeared at Woodstock’94, but, true to form, they were unable to stay the whole weekend because of gig commitments elsewhere. They remain a phenomenon in their homeland; Four was still in the US charts with 4 million sales two years after its release. Straight On Till Morning was eagerly anticipated after the huge success of Four and the band managed to get the balance right between rock and blues. The blues harp playing was noticeably spectacular and the longer tracks such as ‘Make My Way’ and ‘Yours’ highlighted the band at their best, unlike the throwaway pastiche of ‘Felicia’ and ‘Canadian Rose’. Popper recorded the solo Zygote in 1999, but also had to undergo emergency angioplasty. In August, Sheehan was found dead in his New Orleans home. He was replaced by guitarist Chan Kinchla’s brother, Tad, on the band’s new studio release, Bridge.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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