Blues Traveler have gone through three distinct phases since the band formed in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1987: underground jam band, international rock success, and better-known jam band with a few hit songs that it has to play in concert.
Well, it doesn’t have to play them. It wants to play them, according to the band’s guitarist Chan Kinchla.
“We never wanted to be the band that people come to and the band is too cool to play their hit songs,” Kinchla told The Tulsa World. “So there are three or four songs we will play every night and, other than that, we really do like to switch it up as much as we can.”
Kinchla said there is not now, nor has there ever been, an ironclad set list.
“For us, if we had to play the same set every night, we would go completely bananas,” he said.
Blues Traveler performs at the Clyde Theatre on July 26.
Perhaps more than any band, Blues Traveler sparked and spearheaded the jam band renaissance that was a major component of American popular music in the 1990s. The band created the H.O.R.D.E. Festival and invited other improvisational rock acts like the Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic, and Phish to participate in it.
Blues Traveler’s biggest hits, “Run-Around” and “Hook,” came off its fourth album, which was unambiguously titled “four.”
No more big hits followed, but the band has remained an enormously popular touring act.
Blues Traveler has suffered a few setbacks since its inception: lead singer and masterful harmonica player John Popper has contended with numerous health issues over the years and bassist Bobby Sheehan died of an accidental overdose in 1999.
Sheehan was replaced with Tad Kinchla, younger brother of the aforementioned Chan.
Tad Kinchla said he wasn’t sure at first that it was going to be a good fit.
“I told (Popper), ‘If you’re trying to replicate Bobby’s style, I’m a different dude,’” Kinchla told the Canton Repository. “But it was different than just being hired by some guys. This was family. We grew up together. I said, ‘If you think there’s a place for me to fit in, I’d love to do it.’”
Kinchla said he actually interviewed fans in an effort to better understand the band.
“Everyone was really cool,” he said. “People really covet their bands just the way they are, but I was really welcomed with open arms. It all went really well.”
Creatively, Blues Traveler is a wearer of two hats, Kinchla said. Sometimes the band is about concise songwriting and sometimes it is about expansive jamming.
“John has said this before,” he said. “We have like two kind of entities. We have the recording band where we’re crafting songs, and we have the live band. Obviously, our living is done by playing live shows. And the majority of the year, that’s our entity. We play live the way we play live, and extemporaneous jams and segues have always been part of the band and what we do.”
The jam band phenomenon would never have occurred were it not for the existence of the Grateful Dead, Kinchla said.
“You’d be 45 minutes in before they stopped,” he said, referring to how the band (now called Dead & Company) renders a song in concert.
When writing new material, however, jamming is far from the band’s collective consciousness, Kinchla said.
“When we write, we do songs that are compact and concise,” he said. “We don’t have long jams in the middle, and we don’t focus on that in the writing. The songs are what they are. We don’t really have a game plan for what we write being more poppy or less poppy, or more of a jam or more of a ballad. We just kind of come up with what we have at the time.”
Blues Traveler has never fit comfortably into any niche, Kinchla said, and this has given the band a chance to experience a number of musical settings.
“At any given time, we find ourselves at various niches in the music scene,” he said. “We’ll find ourselves at a blues festival, and we’ll be like, ‘I think they put us here because our name is Blues Traveler.’ We have a few bluesy songs, and everyone there is gonna be impressed with the harmonica playing, so we can pull it off. But then we’ll be at a big jam festival and other times with a lot of pop bands. We try to understand where we’re at with what we’re playing… .”
At the time Kinchla joined, the band also added Ben Wilson on keyboards.
Wilson said it’s a privilege to play with Popper every night.
“…(Y)ou sometimes get a bit immune to how ridiculously good he is,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “(In 2017, we started doing) these acoustic shows in Las Vegas. It’s a quiet setting. It’s in a situation where you’re just blown away by how he plays the harmonica. The guy’s a top-flight singer. It’s just really amazing, particularly when you’re in a stripped-down setting.”