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Blues Traveler’s Chan Kinchla Talks Career, Latest Albums and Tour Stop at The Tarrytown Music Hall

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April 29, 2023

By W.B. King–

An avid reader with a recent bent for historical fiction, Blues Traveler’s guitarist Chan Kinchla has spent more than 36 years making history of his own with the Grammy award-winning band he co-founded, Blues Traveler.

“I gravitated toward all the classics — Dostoevsky, Hermann Hesse, Gabriel García Márquez…all of Hemingway’s books, and I could go on and on,” Kinchla told The Hudson Independent, adding that he recently finished Thomas Asbridge’s  “epic” The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land and Tyrell Johnson’s The Lost Kings.

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“What I love about writing is the language becomes kind of musical,” said Kinchla, who co-wrote Blues Traveler’s first big hit, “But Anyway,” with John Popper. It is featured on the band’s 1990 self-titled debut album. “Just like playing guitar, it’s coming out of you — not from your head but from this different place and I find that fascinating.”

Vibrant Little Scene

After spending a brief stint at New York University, Kinchla dropped out of college to “join the circus,” a euphemism for musicians he met in high school in Princeton, N.J. during the mid-1980s. This cast of characters included harmonica virtuoso and singer Popper and drummer Brendan Hill, who had formed The Establishment, later renamed Blues Band. Not long after, bassist Bobby Sheehan and Kinchla completed the lineup.

After one auspicious jam session where the newly formed group was visited by a peculiar black cat, imagery that would later become synonymous with the band akin to The Rolling Stones “tongue and lips” logo, Blues Traveler was born. The band soon set their sights on New York City, some 55 miles away.

“Thankfully I met some great guys to play with. I think for Blues Traveler, the real turn on was when we were just playing in the basement being able to improvise together and then play little backyard keg parties — that whole live experience with a crowd is really what drove us. Doing albums and the rest of it came secondarily.”

When the group made the move in 1987, the New York City Council had recently amended its cabaret law dating back to 1926, allowing more establishments to host live music. “Every little bar or dive started having bands,” he said of the then lower Manhattan music scene. “On any night, it could be Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Chris Whitley — an amazing blues guitar player — or Joan Osborne. It’s just funny because three or four years later, we all had top 10 hits. It’s really a remarkable and vibrant little scene we all came out of…for four or five years we were all kings and queens of New York, which was really fun.”

Among Blues Traveler chart toppers are “Hook” and “Run-Around,” both off the group’s album Four (1994), featuring a black cat in blue shades on the cover. The latter tune won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group in 1995. The album also featured special guests, including renowned singer and guitarist Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers Band and fellow “Brother,” pianist Chuck Leavell who has also served as the musical director for The Rolling Stones since 1982.

Haynes, who first came across Blues Traveler as an opening act for The Allman Brothers in 1990, also makes an appearance on the band’s l4th album, Traveler’s Blues (2021), which oddly marks the group’s first official blues record.

“In the middle of the pandemic, we had a lot of free time and honestly for a lot of years people have been asking us why are name was ‘Blues Traveler’ because we really don’t play the blues,” he noted of the album that was recorded during quarantine in Nashville, Tenn. “We always said, ‘We should do a blues record’ and finally fate conspired when we partnered up with a great record company [Round Hill Records] that had a big blues catalog and licenses…it just fell together. We had a great time and it’s in the spirit of the record.”

Lending his talents to Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” Haynes shares album credits with other notable players, such as Crystal Bowersox on Jimmy Reed’s “You Got Me Runnin’” and Keb’ Mo on the 1920s era blues staple “Trouble in Mind.” The album also features more recent tunes like the Gnarls Barkley hit “Crazy” highlighting contributors Rita Wilson and John Scofield. Popper, who Kinchla calls a “world class singer” has stand out performances on Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” and J.J. Cale’s “Call Me The Breeze,” which also features his signature harmonica playing.

“There are so many amazing guests on it and it turned out way better than we thought,” Kinchla said, adding that it was nominated as a Best Traditional Blues album at the 2022 Grammy Awards. “So, we officially proved we can, in fact, play the blues.”

Sonic Tapestry

Always seeking to tap into the “deeper meaning of life,” Kinchla, noting that his parents were from the “hippie generation,” was thankful to have a vast collection of vinyl to peruse growing up — from bebop jazz to disco.

“Front to back, Saturday Night Fever is an amazing album. I was probably seven or eight when that was a big hit but that is one of the albums I first loved,” he continued. “But the seminal records were all The Beatles albums and the Woodstock [Music from the Original Soundtrack and More] album and then also hearing my dad playing Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.”

As Kinchla grew older, his tastes veered toward music with “energy and aggression” what he referred to as the “the sharp edges of punk rock,” citing bands like The Clash, The Jam along with ska outfits like The English Beat and The Specials.

“Before I played guitar, I would run home and listen to music and get cool new records,” he said. “As I picked up guitar, and got better, I got into more interesting guitar [music] and shifted more into classic rock and improvisation.”

As the only guitar player in Blues Traveler, Kinchla’s approach is informed by guitarists he has long admired like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and The Police’s Andy Summers, among many others.

“It’s nice when its only one guitar because I have all this space to play around with — the sonic tapestry,” he said. “And when you have John [Popper] who is such a terrific soloist, I’m very comfortable playing rhythm parts and riffs, something I enjoy and it let me evolve my lead playing as I went along.”

The culmination of the noted influences, along with his self-taught approach to guitar playing and songwriting, would contribute to Blues Traveler’s rise in popularity throughout the 1990s, but tragedy struck in 1999 when Sheehan unexpectedly died in New Orleans.

“Bobby was my best friend and one of the driving forces of us getting started and I miss him,” he reflected. Believing that Sheehan would want them to press on, the band auditioned a slew of replacements, eventually selecting Kinchla’s younger brother, Tad, to join on bass.

“Tad had been in other bands and had been around Blues Traveler and we played a lot together when we were kids, so that level of trust and familiarity was great moving forward. He’s a very different bass player, a little more funk, backbeat style so that took a little while to incorporate but with anyone we play with, we very much want them to play like themselves,” he continued. “And unlike some other brother bands, it’s been great…me and my brother get along. It’s been the silver ling of losing Bobby…he gave me the opportunity to play with my bro and I’m thankful for that.”

Rounding on the original lineup is keyboardist Ben Wilson, who joined the group in 2000 and has become integral to the band’s songwriting and live shows. “It so nice to have chordal accompaniment,” Kinchla said of the second iteration of the band he proudly calls Mach 2. “I really enjoy that.”

W4RHORS3

A more recent musical shift came when Kinchla, the only member of the band who didn’t have a steady side project, formed W4RHORS3 roughly 18 months ago.  “When you get older, you start weeding away some things and figure out what you really like. My kids are grown up now. ‘I really need a hobby,’ I thought, and realized I like to play guitar in a rock band,” he said, laughing. “So I started another rock band here in Los Angeles where I live to do some local gigs when I have free time.”

Harkening back to his early days with Blues Traveler, he said it’s like starting over, but with a “great day job.” With songs like “The Q” and “Bye For Now,” he describes W4RHORS3’s sound as still “taking shape” but classifies it as “jammy-rock” with a bend toward experimentation.  “SoCal has plenty of fun places to play and I’m playing with really great, professional musicians,” he said of the group featuring Wally Ingram on drums, Paul Ill on bass and Nate LaPointe on guitar.

“It’s me starting a brand new band, playing little bars with no expectations,” he continued. “It’s a blast. I’m doing a lot of the singing, which I really enjoy but not that good at it…I’m practicing.” And, he added with a bit of whimsy, “There are a lot of guitar solos, but so what.”

Expect a Whole Lot of Everything

Never resting on their laurels, Blues Traveler recently returned from the same studio in Nashville where they recorded Traveler’s Blues.

“We had so much fun and had a great reaction to the album, so we just did another record but of more soul and R&B songs from Dr. John, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, TLC’s ‘Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls,’ and Deee-Lite’s ‘Groove is in the Heart,’” he shared, adding there will be 12 tracks in total on the forthcoming Traveler’s Soul. “The songs are all amazing and it was so much fun. R&B is actually more our songwriting style and John [Popper] just sings his butt off.”

Embarking on these deep dives into the noted musical forms has given the band perspective on what Blues Traveler does, while informing growth, which adds depth to live shows, he explained. So when the band takes the stage at The Tarrytown Music Hall on May 16, fans can expect to hear songs from the entire catalog, including tunes from the recently released Live and Acoustic: Fall of 1997, featuring remastered soundboard recordings from that tour.

“Expect to hear a whole lot of everything. We always do some of the hits and deep cuts from albums past but also a few cuts from the blues album and we would really like to do one or two from the one we just recorded,” he continued. “The live experience is what we keep going back to….that’s what we love to do and that’s probably what’s kept us happily jugging along for 36 years…it’s mindboggling, but the more I do it, the more I like it.”

For ticket information, visit: www.tarrytownmusichall.org.

 

 

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