Like Phish and Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler emerged in the early 1990s as part of a new vanguard of jam bands in the tradition of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. Early on, the band's reputation was built on relentless touring, marathon sets, and the explosive harmonica solos of oversized frontman John Popper.
Blues Traveler came together in Princeton, where the Cleveland-born Popper formed the Blues Band with fellow high school students Brendan Hill, Bobby Sheehan, and Chan Kinchla. After graduation, the quartet moved to New York City, where they adopted the name Blues Traveler and became fixtures on the area club circuit. Famed concert promoter Bill Graham agreed to manage them and helped them secure a contract with A&M in 1989. Relentless touring helped push the band's self-titled debut to #136 in early 1991. Travelers & Thieves, released later that year and featuring a guest turn by Gregg Allman on the epic jam "Mountain Cry," went to #125.
In 1992, Popper founded the H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) festival as a means to unite with like-minded, jam-oriented bands for outdoor summer shows. The H.O.R.D.E. fest would soon rival the alternative Lollapalooza festival, attracting an eclectic array of performers ranging from Beck to Neil Young. Blues Traveler's own touring momentum was slowed temporarily in 1992 when Popper was injured in a motorcycle accident, but they soon returned to the road with the frontman performing in a wheelchair.
After the success of Save His Soul (#72, 1993), A&M began to focus on the still-unconquered radio market. "Run-Around," the bouncy first single from four (#8, 1995), introduced Blues Traveler to the mainstream. The song went to #8, set up a second hit single ("Hook," which went to #23), and helped push sales of four over the 6-million mark. "Run-Around" also earned the band a Grammy in 1995 for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
Wary of alienating its veteran fans, Blues Traveler chased four with Live From the Fall (#46, 1996), a double-disc live set that bypassed the two hits in favor of lengthy jams. Their next studio album, 1997's Straight On Till Morning, went to #11 but stalled at platinum.
In the summer of 1999, the then dangerously overweight Popper was hospitalized for chest pains and had to undergo emergency angioplasty. He survived, began a strict diet and exercise regimen, and was fit to tour behind his first solo album, Zygote, in the fall. He and the band were dealt a heavier blow, though, when Bobby Sheehan died of an accidental drug overdose that August. In the midst of their mourning, the remaining band members decided to carry on, with Chan Kinchla's younger brother Tad coming on board to play bass and a fifth member, Ben Wilson, joining on keyboards. While working on a new studio album for release in 2001, the band released a four-song, downloadable EP, Decisions of the Sky —A Traveler's Tale of Sun and Storm, on its Web site.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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