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Live in the Clubs: Blues Traveler ready to play new music

Thursday, October 11, 2012
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Members of Blues Traveler, 	from left, Ben Wilson, Chan Kinchla, John Popper, Tad Kinchla and Brendan Hill, will be at Putnam Den in Saratoga Springs on Monday.
Members of Blues Traveler, from left, Ben Wilson, Chan Kinchla, John Popper, Tad Kinchla and Brendan Hill, will be at Putnam Den in Saratoga Springs on Monday.

Ben Wilson had only been in Blues Traveler for about a month before he recorded his keyboard parts for the band’s 2000 EP “Decisions of the Sky.”

The four-song EP, originally released free online and re-released this year as part of the band’s 25th anniversary greatest hits and rarities package, “25,” was the first studio material from the band following the sudden death of original bassist Bobby Sheehan of a drug overdose in 1999. Originally planned as a concept album, “Decisions of the Sky” was reduced to an EP as the band reworked material with new bassist Tad Kinchla and Wilson.

One track in particular stands out from the rest of the sessions — the 20-plus minute epic “Traveler Suite.” The seven-part song is the only track in the band’s recorded catalog to feature performances by every member of Blues Traveler, as Sheehan had done work on it before his death.

Recording session

Wilson was the last to record his parts on the song, during an early-morning session with lead vocalist and harmonica player John Popper and drummer and producer Brendan Hill. At the time, Wilson was still finding his bearings in the band, and had just learned the complex song’s parts.

“It was 3 in the morning, in a little studio in Austin, Texas, and John — somehow, because I was the new guy, I was the last one going over parts,” Wilson said from his home in Austin, Texas, a week before the band’s tour of the Northeast and South, which heads to Putnam Den on Monday night.

Blues Traveler

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Where: Putnam Den, 63A Putnam St., Saratoga Springs

How Much: $28

More Info: 584-8066, www.putnamden.com. Ages 21 and up.

“And John stays up all night, so he was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We’re going through ‘Traveler Suite,’ which was something he loved, and he tried to direct me emotionally. So I’m in the middle of the room — and keep in mind, I’ve been in the band maybe a month — and John Popper is there waving with conductor’s arms, passionately trying to get me involved emotionally in this music I had just learned. And Brendan said, ‘John, you’re gonna make him nervous.’ It was really funny.”

Wilson, along with Kinchla (brother of the band’s longtime guitarist Chan Kinchla), has now been in Blues Traveler for roughly half the band’s existence, and has played on six studio albums including “Suzie Cracks the Whip,” released in June. The material on “25” spans this material as well as the band’s early years in the ’80s, and the more commercially successful ’90s period.

Looking back

For him, then, going through old Blues Traveler rehearsal tracks and b-sides for the compilation was quite a different experience from his bandmates’.

“For me, it was hilarious going back and listening to what they sounded like in high school, that first year in New York City, and just kind of filtering through some of those tapes and sort of comparing and contrasting where I was at at that time in my own musical career,” said Wilson, who previously played with Michigan-based blues band Big Dave and the Ultrasonics.

The band has been celebrating all year — of course there are the two new releases, but the band’s forte has always been its live show. The group just came off The Last Summer on Earth tour with Barenaked Ladies, Big Head Todd and the Monsters and Cracker, playing for larger audiences in amphitheaters and arenas in July and August. Although the band will be in smaller venues for this round of touring, they’re looking forward to stretching out with longer sets, as well as pushing more material from “Suzie Cracks the Whip.”

“It’s cool to get back into playing some two-hour shows where we can dig a little deeper than we can with a 45-, 50-minute set,” Wilson said. “When you have three or four hits, people want to hear those hits, and we have a new record out so we were trying to play stuff off of that.”

Right now the band has eight new songs in regular live rotation. According to Wilson, audience reaction to the new album has been the best since the group’s 1994 classic “four,” their most commercially successful album thanks to singles “Run-Around” and “Hook.”

Return to tradition

After 2008’s “North Hollywood Shootout” found the band experimenting with modern pop and electronic elements, “Suzie Cracks the Whip” is largely a return to the group’s traditional blend of blues, psychedelia, soul and folk rock. This is despite a slew of guest songwriters helping the band out on the album, including Ron Sexsmith, Carrie Rodriguez and longtime friend of the band Chris Barron, leader of Spin Doctors.

“[We wanted to] focus on what this band does best, which is great singing, cool harmonica playing and good songwriting,” Wilson said. “In order to help on that last part, we brought in folks to help us get around the rough edges of the last few records. Usually when we record, we have six or seven, eight, tunes that we love, and four of them that are just kind of, whatever. That’s not how you make a great record, and we really wanted to make whatever we put on this thing strong.”

 
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