Two years ago Tad Kinchla was walking a tightrope between someone else’s past and his future. Though he’d been a full-fledged member of Blues Traveler for a couple years, getting the call to fill the low-end slot after original bassist Bob Sheehan died of an overdose in 1999, he was feeling a nagging pressure pushing down on everything he did. The group had just released Bridge, the first album he and fellow newbie Ben Wilson (keyboards) had contributed to. He was neck-deep in his first full-blown pitch-the-disc tour. And he was constantly being reminded not to feel the need to play exactly like a guy he’d spent most of his life watching and listening to—the kind of thing that would normally make someone relax but only made Kinchla more aware of the fact that, on classic BT songs, he was mostly mimicking rather playing.
“I was really putting a lot of pressure on myself and had a lot of my own issues at that time because here I was coming into this established band that I’d watched ever since it formed, and I didn’t want to be the one to fuck it up,” Kinchla says. “I didn’t want to be the one that messed this up or missed that bit. I didn’t want to be the one that screwed up Blues Traveler.”
It would take another year on the road before Kinchla would come to terms with Sheehan’s ghost, finally sinking comfortably into the band rather than playing the tentative guest. “One night everything just clicked and that was it,” he says. And while it might only have seemed like a small thing for fans staring on from the crowd, that moment marked the end of the most trying time in the band’s history, a small epilogue to years of pain, loss, surgical breakthroughs and plain fear. “It was like suddenly we became the band we wanted to be, like everything else just disappeared,” Kinchla says.
By now the whole story has become Behind the Music legend. How frontman John Popper became so fat that he actually got exhausted masturbating. How after the band decided to take their first real break after 1997’s Straight On Till Morning, Sheehan had the time to indulge his demons, eventually ending up dead in his New Orleans home. How his passing shocked a nearly 400-pound Popper back to reality, sending him in to have his stomach stapled, an operation that resulted in melting half his body away. Then came the addition of Wilson and Kinchla, guitarist Chan’s little brother and the comeback album that didn’t work. The separation with A& Records, their label for over a decade, and the realization that BT might never be major players again despite holding the record for the longest-charting single ever (“Run-Around” sat in the Top 100 for over a year).
All that seems like a speck in the rearview mirror now, though. Kinchla says the band has overcome and moved on, pointing to the group’s new album, the August-scheduled Truth Be Told (Sanctuary), as evidence. While he says that Bridge was more a rush job—Wilson had only been in the band a week before BT started recording—the band just wanted to show its resilience. Truth Be Told is both a return to form and a push forward. Gone are the aired-out jams of the group’s past few records, replaced by the pop precision that exploded all over their breakthrough Four. Harmonies and hooks dance and spin like hippie girls; heartache stands center stage. And Popper’s vocal range—at times a deep Treebeard harrumph, at others a nasal whine that could cut steel girders—takes precedent over his famed warp-speed harmonica solos.
“After the last album, we really wanted to take the time to build each song,” Kinchla says. “Things were rushed and in disarray last time. Now we’ve got two years under our belts. We’re comfortable with the arrangements in the band. So we felt we could really make the songs tighter, chop the fat and make this an album of songs rather than jams. And I really think it makes a difference.”