Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, May 6, 2001

After a rest,
Blues Traveler is back
with a vengeance

"Bridge" Blues Traveler (A&M)

Review by Burl Burlingame

After something like a half-decade without recording, due to deaths and near deaths in the band, Blues Traveler is back with a fatter sound and more introspection. They're sounding more grown up.

Bass player Bobby Sheehan passed away in one of those rock 'n' roll drug ODs some years ago, and band leader John Popper is newly slimmed down and bright-eyed after years of excess. The story he gives is that he suffered some sort of cardiac malfunction in Hawaii whilst being serviced by a female fan underwater in a hot tub. Maybe he could be the poster boy for Hawaii the Health State.

They've added bassist Tad Kinchla -- brother of guitarist Chan Kinchla -- but the primary change is the addition of keyboard player Ben Wilson, who rounds out their punchy, jazzy and complicated time signatures with counterpoint runs. Have they actually ever played a 12-bar blues? Musically, "Bridge" sounds like the Grateful Dead playing Frank Zappa in his "Yellow Snow" days.

Lyrically, Popper has never been better, and many of the tunes have a rueful glow based on harsh and liberating life experiences. His voice, which generally jumps all over the place like a nervous cat, has achieved a degree of tenderness here, a maturity.

The epic piece here is "Pretty Angry," a meditation on the loss of Sheehan, which even features dueling chorus structures. Lighter workouts such as "Just for Me" recall the trademark harp riffology of "Run Around," and Popper has actually focused on singing here, rather than harp-huffing. He never played a melody on the instrument anyway, except in bebop style.

Blues Traveler has stretched itself here, just a wee bit, but it's true musical growth instead of the production equivalent of tossing in the kitchen sink. They're back with a vengeance.

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