Thursday, June 9, 2011

Blues Traveler: a suite, Part one

Blues Traveler has been, for me, one of the better bands to come out of the post 80s alternative pop scene that wasn't a proto-grunge, pop-punk, hip hip, or nu-metal band.  Let me explain further... certain types of music are in vogue, and there is no shortage of sound alike or copycat bands to ride the trend.  A good example is Pearl Jam.  Candlebox, Live, the Toadies, Silverchair, 7Mary3, and Creed could all be considered Pearl Jam copycat bands.

Blues Traveler didn't fit into the trendy sounds of the late 80s and early 90s.  They came out of a budding underground music scene in New York, and were incorporated into Bill Graham's music promotion enterprise.  The same scene that would produce the Spin Doctors, the Counting Crows, Joan Osborne, Blind Melon, and Jeff Buckley.  The blues-tinged sound mixed well with country roots and a jam band swagger.  The harmonica as lead instrument was a unique contrast to the usual lead guitar sounds of most other bands.

I followed them from their hit release (which was actually their 4th album) to just about recently.  This is part one of a career in review.

Blues Traveler 
Blues Traveler
1990, A&M records
produced by Justin Neibank

John Popper - vocals, harmonica, guitars
Chan Kinchla - guitars
Brooklyn Bobby Sheehan - bass
Brendan Hill - drums

  • But Anyway

This album features many of their later live show staples, and shows their musical jam style better than later studio albums.  Many of the sounds, and riffs would later appear in other songs on other albums, and would help to set up their unique style.  Most of the album is written by John Popper and Chan Kinchla.  This will be important later on.  Overall, this is a pretty well done album.  Guest musicians include Chris Barron, Joan Osborne, Kevin Traynor, Howie Wyneth, and Joe Flood, who is uncredited.  

Blues Traveler
Travelers and Thieves
1991, A&M records
produced by Jim Gaines
  • Sweet Pain
  • All in the Groove
  • Mountain Cry
This album continues the happy funky bluesy sound from the first album.  Bobby Sheehan contributes to more music on this album, and an angry rock sound begins to emerge on songs like Onslaught and Ivory Tusk.  Most of the tracks are either social conscience tracks, or happy carefree little love songs.  John Popper comes into his own on this album as a lyrical song writer, and seems to enjoy writing catchy lyrics.  Good tracks to check out are Optimistic Thought, the Best Part, All in the Groove, and Support your Local Emperor.  Guest Musicians include Chris Barron, and Greg Allman.

Blues Traveler
Save His Soul
1993, A&M records
produced by Dave Swanson
singles -
  • Conquer Me
  • Defense and Desire
This is my favorite Blues Traveler release.  The sound begins to rock out more, especially on tracks like Love and Greed, Defense and Desire, NY Prophesie, and Whoops.  The band shows it has an edge, and Popper begins to write with a passion and anger only seen in briefs glimpses on earlier releases.  And yet, Popper is still able to write sweet little love songs like Love of my Life and Conquer Me that have some substance.  Sheehan and Hill contribute, but most of the music is written by Popper and Kinchla.  They also are able to still show that jam band structure on tracks like Go Outside and Drive, and Whoops.  Guest musicians include Paul Shaffer and the City Singers.

Blue Traveler
1994, A&M records.  
produced by Steve Thompson, Michael Barbiero

singles -
  • Run Around/Trust in Trust/ Regarding Steven/ Featherhead and Lucky Lack/ Escaping
  • Hook/ Run Around/ The Mountains Win Again
  • The Mountains Win Again
This marks Blues Traveler's peak.  They have two hit songs from this album, and it goes platinum 6 times.  As for the music, the band seems to finally figure out the right mixture of all the sounds they had been playing around with for years.  John Popper's lyrics have never been better, or more clever especially on Run Around and Hook, both written to be hit pop songs.  The music has the right mix of edgy rock, and soft bluesy country.  They still hold onto their jam band structure with tracks like the Good the Bad and the Ugly, and The Mountains Win Again (Sheehan's only solo writing credit).  Overall, this album is fantastic, and deserves to be a platinum record.  Guest Musicians include Warren Haynes, Paul Shaffer, and Chuck Leavell.

Blues Traveler
Straight on til Morning
1997, A&M records
produced by Steve Thompson, Michael Barbiero

singles -
  • Carolina Blues
  • Most Precarious
  • Canadian Rose

This is a good example of Bill Simmon's idea of the 'quest for more'.  The premise, according to Simmons, is sports teams have a hard time repeating championships due to trying so hard to copy the success of the past season, that they fail to grow and get better.  Coming off of Four, Blues Traveler attempted to copy the success of their last critically acclaimed album.  This is the first time they worked with the same producers on two consecutive albums.  Most Precarious was supposed to be the next Run Around; it falls short.  Even though this is not as good as Four, it is still as good if not better at points than the first three albums.  This is a great follow up, and I don't think it gets enough credit.  It takes the best parts of Save His Soul, and Four and tries to jam them together.  There is something dark about this album that was hinted at on Save His Soul, but is abandoned in the future.  The band takes you into creepy shadowy places and then walks you back out again.  Perhaps this album was a quest for more, but I dont think it failed as much as the band, critics and some fans think.  Guest musicians include John Medeski, Larry Hoppen, Paul Griffin, and Mark Eddinger

Stay tuned for Part Two.....

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