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By Tom Murphy
The drama of high school, the heady elation of a recording contract with a major label, the premature death of a childhood friend from a drug overdose — all of these elements have figured into the music of Brendan Hill, who's served as the drummer for Blues Traveler since the age of thirteen. Following the release of a 25-year retrospective of its career earlier this year, the quintet from New Jersey will release a new album just before heading to Red Rocks for its annual Fourth of July celebration. We spoke with Hill about the new album and about the tradition, begun in 1994, of performing at the Rocks on Independence Day.
Westword: What was the compilation process like for the release of 25 earlier this year?
Brendan Hill: I kept all the half-inch and two-inch reels, all of the recordings. We got the original tape we made when were in high school and picked a couple from that. Once we were signed, not all of the things that we recorded were released. We finished that stuff, along with all the production and the mixing, but it just didn't make the cut — [songs] like "Featherhead and Lucky Lack," "Blue Hour" and "Didn't Mean to Wake You Up."
Was it surreal to track the evolving sound of the band over a 25-year span?
I met John when I was thirteen and he was sixteen. We were just kids. As a high-school band, we all thought we were bad-ass, but we were still learning our instruments. There was a sound, even back then, that was a distinctive tone and a distinctive style. I think that's what makes Blues Traveler different. To see that develop through the 25 years is very gratifying. We've taken different directions. Bobby [Sheehan] passed away, and new guys have joined the band. The sound has changed.
With the exception of 1999, you've played Red Rocks every summer since 1994. What keeps you coming back?
It's a place where music should be played. Since the audience is on a 45-degree slope, everyone is focused in on the stage, and I think the bands really dig that. When you walk out on the stage and you feel that roar, you look up and it's like seeing a giant wall of people. It's an amazing feeling. There's no question that that is part of our summer.
What are some of your strongest memories from your stint playing in Morrison for the Fourth?
The first time we did it was opening for the Allman Brothers; that was our first impression of Red Rocks, walking up to the top of the steps and looking down and saying, "Man, we're going to be playing this tonight." Doing "No Woman, No Cry" with Ziggy Marley was a huge moment. We did the twentieth anniversary of our first record; we played the whole Blues Traveler record a couple of years ago.
What's the plan for this year?
We've got Fitz and the Tantrums opening for us, and we're playing from our new album, Suzie Cracks the Whip. We want to celebrate the Fourth, but we also want to celebrate what's going to happen this year.... For John Popper, the album was liberating. It's tough to come up with fifteen awesome ideas; I think there was the benefit of fifteen people coming in and writing for John in a slightly different voice.