Blues Traveler searches for a new path
In 1999, the rock band's bassist, Bobby Sheehan, died from a drug overdose at 31. The group, which had risen to prominence in 1994 with its Grammy award-winning hit, "Run-Around," decided to press on without Sheehan. It replaced him with Tad Kinchla and, in 2000, added a fifth member, keyboardist Ben Wilson.
"It was weird trying to figure out how to fit in and not f--- with that legacy, but also try to forge something new," Wilson said of joining the band during its mainstream period.
Finding another path to success has been difficult; none of the group's seven albums since Sheehan's death have threatened the commercial heights of "Four," the 1994 record that was six-times platinum. None of them have even reached the gold level, a distinction the band's first five records (and a live album) all merited, with three going platinum. But Blues Traveler's musical journey isn't over, and many fans have returned to come along for the ride.
"This 30th anniversary tour has been one of the best tours that we've done in many, many, many, many, moons," said Wilson, who answered questions by phone between sold-out stops at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and Bogart's in Cincinnati.
When the band comes to The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday, March 3, it will, of course, play its most popular tunes, such as "Run-Around" and "Hook" off of "Four." Frontman John Popper's vocals and harmonica solos distinguish those tunes and have been at the core of the group's sound for three decades.
"[He] is a great instrumentalist, one of the great harmonica players, and also an amazing singer," Wilson said.
The keyboardist doesn't mind celebrating songs he didn't create.
"There's a great respect for what was going on in the years before us," Wilson said of him and Kinchla, whose brother, Chan, is a guitarist and one of three founding members who still plays in the group. (Popper and drummer Brendan Hill are the others.)
Wilson recognizes that the group can still sell out venues because of its mid-'90s run. Regular appearances on "The Late Show with David Letterman" contributed to the group's fame during that time, too.
"The cool thing about this band, because of the success that we've had in the past, is it seems like there's always a place for us, which has been really, really great," Wilson said.
Yet, Blues Traveler's popularity two decades ago presented a predicament for the group in the ensuing years.
"The history of the band, since the hits, has always been ... are we a jam band? Because that's kind of where things started. But then, once you get those top hits, are we more song-oriented? So, for a while, it was a very conscious effort to kind of straddle that line," Wilson said.
In 2012, the group sought outside help to write songs for "Suzie Cracks the Whip."
"[We had been] writing songs, making records, the exact same way for years, and the results we thought were lacking. So, we wanted to try to shake things up a little bit," Wilson said.
The band's next album, "Blow Up the Moon" (2015), took the concept one step further by featuring musicians from a variety of different genres on the record's 14 tracks. JC Chasez (of 'N Sync fame) and Thompson Square, the husband-wife country duo that played at the Mahaiwe in November, were among those who made appearances.
"The thing that was unexpected and so cool was when we got together with 3OH!3 or JC Chasez...[or] Jewel, they had so much respect for us, and it was legitimate," Wilson said.
He acknowledged that there was a "business-y" element to involving such a wide array of musicians on the record because the group was aiming to appeal to new audiences. The album would have benefited from some tweaking.
"We weren't thrilled with every song, and if we had more time, I think we would've done a better job," he said. "But some of the songs were just really stand-out."
The group's mixed feelings about the record influenced its latest full-length, which is set to be released in June. The five members wrote and recorded all of the new tunes together.
"We said, you know what, it's time to just do a Blues Traveler record. We've got all that out of our system," Wilson said.
On this leg of the tour, they have been playing about four songs from the album at each concert. Live performances are the jam band's "bread and butter," Wilson said.
"It's a great thing to be able to come out of 'Run-Around' and then go into an extended jam that leads into one of our more kind of groovy, hippie songs from way back. So, our identity hasn't really changed. I think, in some ways, because there was the upheaval with the original bass player dying and then the slide from pop stardom, or whatever you want to call it, to being just below that kind of level of consciousness in the culture, you kind of reimagine yourselves, become a little self-conscious for awhile and then kind of emerge. And this is what we are [now], and it just feels really good. It feels really natural. It feels really comfortable."
Who: Blues Traveler
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 3
Where: The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington
Tickets: $49-89 (members receive $5 off tickets)
Information: 413-528-0100; mahaiwe.org
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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