A jam band can be more than just endless stretches of cascading rhythms swirling through a haze of pot smoke, musicians playing to a head-bobbing crowd of dreadlocks, flip-flops and hemp-based threads. So when someone describes Blues Traveler, a band that had mainstream pop success in the ’90s, as a jam band, don’t get up on your uneducated soapbox with a list of reasons they don’t fit the genre.
Tad Kinchla, bass player for Blues Traveler, said to get the whole picture, you have to go back to the heritage of the term jam band.
“When the term was first applied, Blues Traveler was coming up with Widespread (Panic) and Dave (Matthews) and they were playing together in the H.O.R.D.E. festival,” Kinchla said. “Phish and all these bands — most of those headliners — came out of the shadow of the Dead and the Allman Brothers.”
Genres evolve as music evolves, and though there are sonic differences between the fluttering notes of John Popper’s harmonica and the guitar picking of Dave Matthews, it’s all considered different keys of the same jamming melody.
“We sound different from Widespread Panic or Leftover Salmon, but you can apply the term jam band because we don’t play the same sets,” Kinchla said. “We have jams between songs that turn into songs that turn into other songs, so I think that’s where the term came from. The Colorado style is more string-oriented, but they all come from the same spot of playing extemporaneously.”
The art of jam starts with a song, and before you know it, you’re six songs in, Kinchla said. Using that interpretation, a jam band could be anything from bluegrass to DJ scratching to heavy metal.
“In many respects, there are DJs out there that you can consider jam bands, but they play with some other instrumentation, and it’s totally different and they are exploring different things,” Kinchla said. “I think it’s fair to put it all into that category rather than a certain style of music.
“Led Zeppelin was considered heavy metal, and Led Zeppelin is just a badass blues band. If you hold it up to heavy metal today and death metal, this is a hard rock blues band, but back in the day, they were just so loud and didn’t fit into any spots.”
This evolution in music styles is a good thing, Kinchla said, because it’s given us shredding metal rock bands that jam and mandolin-led bluegrass acts that just plain rock. The constant crossover also helps expose more people to music they might not have previously sought out.
“Right now, there’s a renaissance of acoustic instruments and simplistic drums, but it’s always a pendulum,” he said. “We go into acoustic, and a lot of bands are using simplistic arrangements. It’s not about playing — it’s more about the song writing and songs — but it seems like within the next five years there will be just sick performance-type stuff again, like bands like Tool and that.”
Change will do you good
Blues Traveler has been riding the alt-rock, jam-band wave since the early ’90s. Kinchla was brought into the band after the death of original bassist Bobby Sheehan in 1999, and the Grammy-winning foursome became a quintet with the addition of Ben Wilson on keyboard around the same time.
“‘Four’ was the breakout album with radio success and getting out to the masses,” Kinchla said, referring to the 1994 release that brought pop hits “Run-Around” and “Hook” to the radio airwaves. “Since then, I’ve been added to the band and we’ve added a keyboardist. The orchestration is different now with a five piece, rather than a four piece. The way the songs are written now, you have to think about the mid-range instruments with piano, keyboard, harp, you have to be more strategic about how those things go together, whereas in the past, the bass was carrying what the keyboard would play.”
That midstream instrumentation change suited Blues Traveler, as did a recent decision to start working with a series of songwriters, rather than relying on Popper to produce the majority of the band’s lyrics. Kinchla said each member of the band had his own influences, which don’t change much from year to year, and they wanted to reach out and bring in something fresh.
“I think a lot of that really boiled down to John feeling like we’re rolling in the songs, putting the songs together, and we’re throwing them his way, and he had to slam out all these lyrics,” Kinchla said. “It became a kind of machine, so we decided to mix it up.
“That’s been a great, great thing for us as far as spawning new ideas, starting at places we wouldn’t have started, so the changes are pretty in-depth, and that helps John collaborating, getting ideas out that otherwise might not have been there and get some topics that are different from his, as far as lyrical content.”
Blues Traveler is sandwiching its trip to Breckenridge to play Spring Fever on Saturday, April 19, between two recording sessions in Los Angeles for a new project.
“We’re in the middle of doing a whole bunch of collaborations with some really cool artists, spanning from country music to more electronic to singer-songwriters,” Kinchla said. “This whole process right now — I’m not legally allowed to let it out of the bag yet — but this process right now is full-on collaborations where we play with other bands.
“This process has been awesome. I would mention their names but I’ve been told not to, but we do have a whole lot of other material coming out, a whole spectrum of different artists that we’re really excited about.”
Kinchla said the band would trickle out a few singles later in the year from the new venture as they hone in on all of the tracks. The luxury of being in Blues Traveler, he said, is that the group can put out killer albums and still get back to their jam-band roots when they perform live.
“The Grateful Dead was the best jam band ever, and their studio albums were god awful,” Kinchla said with a laugh. “People didn’t even buy studio albums; they were exchanging live tapes. What’s cool about our playing is we can play some deep cuts, jam, and then some very mainstream songs that we pop in that bring people in.
“Not a lot of bands have mainstream popularity but also can jam. It’s a cool situation for us. It’s really rewarding playing in front of different crowds, at festivals, playing covers, deep cuts — it’s always fun for us, but it’s cool as a listener because even if you don’t know the band, you’ll be able to have a good time.”