In their current Wizard of Oz-inspired video, Blues Traveler hides behind a curtain on a club stage, performing their hit single ”Run-around” while a considerably more photogenic quartet mimes it for the audience. Aside from its wry jabbing at the increasing necessity for visual appeal in rock, the clip stands as a curious yet pointed symbol of the band’s shrugging acceptance of its newfound and widespread popularity. Blues Traveler’s fourth album, four, has now exceeded double platinum and has spent three weeks in the top 10 on the pop charts — a situation that many bands would consider auspicious but one that Traveler’s corpulent frontman, John Popper, 28, can only characterize as ”creepy.”
It’s not that he’s ungrateful. It’s just that, in addition to having the ubiquitous single of the summer, Blues Traveler suddenly finds itself bearing a standard for the current wave of hippie nostalgia. Along with Hootie & the Blowfish, Phish, and the Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler has quietly gained a huge following, largely outside rock’s established channels of radio and video airplay and record-company promotion. Also like those bands, Traveler’s success stems from incessant live performance (nearly eight years of it), mostly for college-age crowds, and the resulting word of mouth.
But the four members of the band — Popper; guitarist Chan Kinchla, 26; drummer Brendan Hill, 25; and bassist Bobby Sheehan, 27 — have only themselves to blame. Back in 1992, Popper & Co. created a tour to showcase themselves and like-minded acts. The H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) concerts premiered with an eight-date schedule that averaged crowds of 7,500. Three years later, it is a runaway success, with 15,000 fans expected to attend each of the 23 scheduled dates that began on Aug. 3, and anticipated receipts of $6 million. Previous participants have included the Allman Brothers and Melissa Etheridge; this year’s tour (costarring the Black Crowes and Ziggy Marley) will, at various junctures, feature shooting stars Sheryl Crow, Wilco, and Dionne Farris.
Astute readers will notice a theme: Most of the above artists use blues as a jumping-off point but incorporate the melodic listener-friendliness and jam-worship of classic rock. ”When you improvise, you always come back to [the blues],” says Popper, whose own band started jamming in 1987 in Princeton, N.J. ”It’s the cornerstone of rock’s vocabulary. We view blues not as a style of music, but as a level of honesty you play with. It’s not Mississippi Delta blues, but Zeppelin listening to Muddy Waters, and us listening to Zep.” Echoes Misty Lynch, a 23-year-old fan at H.O.R.D.E.’s second show: ”I love [Blues Traveler] because they’re sort of like the ’60s and the ’90s.”
Popper doesn’t mind that description, but he wishes people would lay off the crunchy, Deadheady, hippie-redux label that has dogged the tour since its inception. ”I am so sick of the neo-hippie tag, but I think it’s incurable,” he sighs. Bassist Sheehan believes it derives from the crowd: ”They’re just live-music lovers, people who like interactive bands. If that makes them hippies, then goddamn it, they are.”