One of the unforeseen pop music movements of the late ’80s was a passel of bands that decided to do something about the absence of improvisatory jamming, a feature that had faded out of rock’s mainstream along with summer festivals after the mid-’70s. This generation of groups found a spiritual forebear in the Grateful Dead, not only musically but also in an audience-friendly marketing approach of fan clubs, hot lines, Internet sites and near-constant touring. Not surprisingly, such grass-roots efforts attracted followings of high-school and college kids, career-oriented but hungry for rootsy, nomadic summer breaks of granola, hacky sack, pot and tunes that, like roads, go on forever.
Blues Traveler was at the forefront of this; leader John Popper even conceived the annual H.O.R.D.E. tour to give the movement a mantle. Formed during 1983 in Princeton, N.J., by school friends Popper and drummer Brendan Hill, the group became a serious proposition after a knee injury scotched the ample singer’s fledgling football career. Guitarist Chan Kinchla and bassist Bobby Sheehan hopped on board, and the quartet — then known simply as Blues Band — relocated to Brooklyn and became Manhattan club favorites. Their music was, and is, more about chops than songs; fortunately, they’re all exciting players, and the weapon-packing Popper’s harmonica virtuosity — he brings a guitarist’s sensibility to the instrument, which makes him more utilitarian than simply a soloist — is a source of endless delights. And he’s no slouch as a blues belter, either.
The knock that Blues Traveler can’t write songs isn’t quite accurate. There are lots of compelling hooks and melodies on Blues Traveler, but the group too often hurries through them to get to the jams. Thus the longer tracks (“Crystal Flame,” “Alone”) tend to be the most fully realized, allowing the group to take its time developing the composition and still have plenty left for the solos. But some of the shorter numbers do work. The gentle, swaying “100 Years,” bolstered by Arnie Lawrence’s soprano sax solo, has remained a favorite of the band’s live set, while “Gotta Get Mean” is a punchy blues grind driven by one of Kinchla’s tastiest licks.
Travelers & Thieves boasts a similar mix of virtues and problems, though some of the latter are more pronounced. The song constructions still aren’t complete; Popper tries to fill more space with words and frequently slips into verbosity. “Onslaught” and “Ivory Tusk” are heavy — both in their tone and in their socially conscious lyrics — and sound forced within the context of Blues Traveler’s normally good-natured, wiggly grooves. Popper displays a new Creole flavor in his playing on “Optimistic Thought” and “Support Your Local Emperor.” The best cut by far (and the longest) is a winding nine-minute workout, “Mountain Cry,” that alternates slow blues and funk grooves and features Gregg Allman on organ.
Save His Soul is a significant step forward. The quartet’s songwriting is tighter, and Popper — who was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident while the album was being made — is starting to find his voice as a social commentator. (He still tends to get preachy and hasn’t dropped the cartoonish bad-dude persona that crops up in the bar-room braggadocio of “Defense & Desire.”) “Trina Magna” brings Latin flavors into the mix, while the group employs strings to flesh out the arrangement of “Fledgling.” “Go Outside & Drive” lays a chugging rhythm under Popper’s stream-of-consciousness vocal, “Believe Me” kicks into a convincing Southern rock shuffle and “Manhattan Bridge” is, shockingly, the first instrumental Blues Traveler has ever put on record. Once again, the longest track (eight-plus minutes of “Whoops”) shines, and the folkish “Letter From a Friend,” with a tough, poignant lyric about death (“We can’t change that he left us / But it’s up to you to stay”), is a standout.
Blues Traveler tightened its songs further for four, yielding a pop hit in the Latiny swirl of “Run-Around.” “Hook,” “Price to Pay” and the Dead- like “Stand” are also fully realized compositions, in which the solos serve the song rather than the other way around. “The Mountains Win Again” is another victorious step into Southern rock, while “Fallible” and “Freedom” attack heavier grooves without sacrificing the band’s natural swing. The playing also benefits from the improved songwriting: Popper’s harp blasts sound particularly focused and Kinchla delivers a career-topping solo in “Just Wait.” Guest shots by past and present Allman Brothers — keyboardist Chuck Leavell and guitarist Warren Haynes — strengthen an already outstanding effort.
Answering the clamor for a concert document, Blues Traveler delivered Live From the Fall, a double-length souvenir from the four tour. Showcasing the quartet’s live virtues — particularly Popper’s harmonica gymnastics and nimble scat singing — the album doubles as a solid overview of the group’s best material. The one-two punch of “Gina” and “But Anyway” is electrifying, as is the smooth segue from “Mulling It Over” into “Closing Down the Park” (one of two new songs: the other is “Regarding Steven”). Fifteen minutes of “Alone” is pushing it a little, but the late-show jam on “Go Outside & Drive” — which uses “Tequila,” “Low Rider” and Beck’s “Loser” to wind toward the big hit “Run-Around” — is a treat.
Kinchla and Sheehan are half of the Jono Manson Band on Almost Home, turning in fine performances backing up their old scene pal on an appealing, earthy album that sounds a lot like John Hiatt’s rock/R&B side. Popper, who played behind the rootsy singer/guitarist in the ’80s, blows his face out on three tracks.
Sheehan died of a drug overdose at home in New Orleans August 1999. (He was replaced in the lineup by Chan Kinchla’s brother Tad.) The following month, Popper released a solo album.