When Ben Wilson joined Blues Traveler, the band's future seemed doomed: the follow-up to the hit-filled Four flopped, John Popper underwent angioplasty after months of chest pains and founding bassist Billy Sheehan passed away unexpectedly at age 31. Six years, three studio albums and two new members later (Wilson plus Sheehan replacement Tad Kinchla), Blues Traveler sounds like a different band.
"People just associate Blues Traveler with John's voice and harmonica and don't really pay attention to what's going on behind those things," says Wilson. "But when you add two new people to a band and you're going to have a different dynamic. Some people argue that it's changed the sound for the worse, but we have new fans that disagree."
As a live act, Blues Traveler hasn't evolved much-the group's still an Allman Brothers-inspired, epic-jam band. But in the studio BT's turned its back on nine-minute harp-guitar-bass solos. Truth Be Told (2003) was an album of radio-ready, four-minute pop songs. And the new release, Bastardos, marries Truth's concise pop with playful eccentricity. Not coincidently, many of these odd tracks were composed by Wilson and Kinchla-who have stepped up alongside Popper as chief songwriters.
"The whole Bastardos thing is that we're a bunch of bastards and screw everyone else," says Wilson. "It's about making the album we want to make, doing what we want to do. It's like that Clint Eastwood Man With No Name thing."
Bastardos is clearly the work of a band eschewing convention. The punchy horns and long, spiral keyboard solo in "She and I" blend late-'60s, acid-rock Chicago with early-'80s, blue-eyed-soul Chicago. "That Which Doesn't Kill You" sounds like Junta-era Phish. And "What Could Possibly Go Wrong" hints at Zappa and Primus. Wedged between these curiosities are well-written "Run Around" imitations-like the bubbling radio hit "Amber Awaits."
But Wilson doesn't attribute BT's new burst of chutzpah to his songwriting talents.
"When we make an album, everybody brings in music and it just so happens that the songs that I came in with fit better with the lyrics," he says. "Last time the stuff I brought in just didn't play out well with the band, and that's just the way it goes."
It's no Travelers and Thieves, but it's not half bad.Blues Traveler plays with Carbon Leaf at House of Blues on Oct. 30. $23-$25. Doors open at 7 p.m. 619-299-BLUE.