Harp-master John Popper, Blues Traveler survive the pop circus
ASPEN John Popper has two theories for how the harmonica came to be his instrument of choice.The first is that the harmonica was easy to play. Popper was detected, as a 3-year-old, harmonizing in the church choir. Assuming he was musically gifted, his parents pushed him into cello lessons. But cello was difficult, so he never practiced. A few years later, they started him on piano, which he likewise devoted little time to. Guitar, he just hated. And the brief flirtation with tuba? Not only difficult, but humiliating. It was that thing, give the fat kid the tuba, he said.This theory holds water. The way the harmonicas reeds are designed, simply blowing into the instrument results in a tuneful sound. What kid wants to spend time learning how to hold a cello bow when he can just wail away on a mouth harp?The second theory, though, is preferable, in that it hints better at the psychological make-up of John Popper. Learning cello, piano and guitar generally involves a teacher. And Popper generally resisted teachers, and being taught, and anything else that would impinge on his wide-open freedom of expression.There was no harmonica teacher, no one to tell me what I was doing wrong, said the 41-year-old Popper by phone from a Marriott hotel in Denver, a few days before coming to Aspen for the traditional Fifth of July Belly Up appearance with Blues Traveler, the band he has led for more than 20 years. I think it was the fact that I couldnt find a teacher.Besides being easy, the harmonica had other attractive attributes. Poppers first career desire was to be a comedian, so when he first really noticed the harmonica being played by Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live it struck a chord. From the Blues Brothers, Popper traced the harmonica back to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which he found pretty cool. And then when he discovered Hendrix, and realized that the only limits to the sounds that could be coaxed out of an instrument were the players imagination, he was hooked.When I heard Hendrix he didnt care what he was playing, said Popper. That to me was a green light. There was that freedom. I just tried to play what kinds of sounds he was making on his guitar.Poppers experiments on the harmonica were encouraged by those who heard him. He still seems mystified by the idea that parents and friends actually found his music pleasing to the ear. But he was convinced that he was onto something when a teacher overheard him playing, and instead of sending him to the principals office, sent him to the band room. There, he was forced to stumble his way, on trumpet, through a version of Thomas Dolbys 80s synthesizer masterpiece, She Blinded Me with Science. But Popper also happened to have, stuffed in his trumpet case, a harmonica that was in the proper key for the song. So he switched instruments and blew the melody again, even using a plunger over the harp, in the manner of a jazz trumpeter. The antic landed him a first-string seat in his high school jazz band.And then everything was different, says Popper. Changing things as much as the discovery of his instrument was finding a group of like-minded teenagers in the Princeton, N.J., of the mid-80s. Guitarist Chan Kinchla, drummer Brendan Hill, bassist Bobby Sheehan and Popper started playing churches, barbecues and tiny local clubs, under the name Blues Traveler: Blues from the earliest incarnation of the group, known simply as The Blues Band; and Traveler from the demon, Gozer the Traveler, from the film Ghostbusters. With Popper taking on primary vocal duties, as well as songwriting responsibilities, the band relocated to New York City and became the center of an emerging downtown rock scene that included singer Joan Osborne, the Spin Doctors, and, interestingly, the Holmes Brothers, a gospel group that had 20 years or so on the pack.Singer-songwriter Jono Manson, who was then leader of Joey Miserable & the Worms, has often been referred to as the Godfather of this club scene. (Manson would later tour with Popper and Sheehan in the High Plains Drifters, a band formed specifically to make a few wintertime runs through the Colorado ski-town circuit. The 1997 show at Aspens old Double Diamond, with Popper relinquishing lead singing to Manson, ranks as my favorite rock show ever.) But Popper was the heart of the scene, remarkable for not only his unsurpassed inventiveness with the harmonica, but his rapid-fire vocalizing, his prolific songwriting, and his overall energy. In addition to being frontman for Blues Traveler, he currently leads his John Popper Project, makes frequent unbilled appearances with The Late Show with David Letterman band, has contributed as a sideman to numerous albums, and is known to sit in and jam with the slightest coaxing. And when Popper performs, it is with all of himself, as he shouts, contorts and grimaces to wrench every sound out of his body.Its a case straight out of Psychology 101: The eccentric butterball finds his talent, earns considerable praise, and the flood of bottled-up emotion is uncorked.Theres been a large part of my life when I wasnt able to say that, said the 41-year-old Popper. But for the majority of my life Ive been able to say what I want. Its the thing I live for. I love to express myself. I cant ever see wanting to stop writing songs.I sneeze in an interesting way. I guess playing the harmonica in a different way has knocked down a lot of doors.Poppers second-favorite mode of expression would have to be guns. He says he moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania several years ago because of Pennsylvanias relatively relaxed weapons laws. Popper now lives in Washington state, near Seattle. Last year, a car he was riding in in eastern Washington was pulled over for speeding; a search turned up several rifles, handguns, a switchblade and more. No charges were filed for the weapons, which were all registered and secured. The incident was eye-catching, but Chan Kinchla, the Blues Traveler guitarist, claims it was overblown, that Popper has always been responsible regarding his hobby. It almost seems inevitable, given Poppers tendency toward the extremes, that Blues Traveler would experience both highs and lows. The lowest point was the 1999 death of bassist Bobby Sheehan, Poppers best friend, from a drug overdose. Sheehan was also a familiar figure in Aspen, thanks to a girlfriend who lived here. Sheehan wrote one of the bands finest songs, Mountains Win Again, inspired by his visits here. The band flirted with the idea of breaking up after the death, but instead hired Tad Kinchla, Chans younger brother, to fill the bass slot, and further refreshed the lineup by adding a keyboardist, Ben Wilson. Not long after, Popper had gastric bypass surgery, which reduced his size from dangerously overweight to, for a while, slim, to his present state of chubby.The bands height, at least in terms of success and income, came with the bands fourth album, four, released in 1994. Since being signed with A&M in the late 80s, the label had been assuring Blues Traveler that a major hit was just around the corner despite the bands anti-commercial look, approach and sound. Songs like But Anyway and Conquer Me had some radio presence, but did nothing to alter the bands essence as a band that favored jamming live to crafting pop hits.Run-Around did. The single from four was a catchy, upbeat, four-chord tune that became one of those eerily ubiquitous songs in 1995, and earned a Grammy Award. Blues Traveler found themselves on MTV and Saturday Night Live, opening for the Rolling Stones and headlining large amphitheaters.Really busy and really annoying. But a lot of money, is how Popper remembers the Run-Around era. But we were too busy to enjoy it.Even if theyd had they the luxury of being able to fully absorb what they were going through, they might not have liked what they saw. The drag was, youre playing for that radio audience of 12-year-olds, said Popper. Then your audience isnt thinking so much. Its almost not about you; its like the 12-year-old girls have decided to find a song that means something to them. Its very unnatural. It was like Beatlemania. Thats the force of radio play. You have to respect its power, but also know how to steer it.Blues Traveler didnt know, in the moment, how to handle that kind of mainstream success. They did silly pop-world things like opening for David Hasselhoff. For their follow-up to four, 1997s Straight On Till Morning, they tried to replicate the success; Popper says the song Most Precarious was their gratuitous Run-Around clone. But eventually their turn in pop mainstream faded away, and Popper and company went back to what they did best playing jam-oriented concerts for loyal fans.Were lucky that we were a band after that. When the smoke cleared, we were still together, he said. But if you have a great record, you have to take the opportunity to grab a lot of money. I recommend it; a hit records a good thing. When our next record didnt do what four did, I was afraid wed have to give all our stuff back. That a truck would roll up and pack everything up and take it away.But it was cool to find out that that didnt define us. We learned, you have to be yourself. And you is an ever-growing thing; its never a finite place.Blues Travelers recording career has had a vast downturn over the last decade or so probably even a bigger one that the record industry as a whole. They have bounced from label to label without making much of a blip on the mainstream radar. Their last album, released last year, was Cover Yourself, on which they drastically reworked old songs of theirs. Run-Around got an injection of brass parts; Mountains Win Again was reconceived as slow Delta blues.As a touring band, however, Blues Traveler seems on a comfortable plateau. Their Fourth of July gig is a standing date at Red Rocks; most of this summer will be spent in amphitheaters, on a bill with Live and Collective Soul. In August, they will play the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago.As for the recording studio, they are taking another approach, with yet another label this time Verve, traditionally a jazz-oriented label. Popper is thrilled that he will be on the same label that featured another pioneering wind player, saxophonist Charlie Parker.North Hollywood Shootout, recorded in Los Angeles, is due for release in August. As much as Popper respects his bandmates, this time he took the reins of the project, and set a tight writing and recording schedule which allowed little time for deliberation.You need an ego at the center of it, he said. So the guys trusted me and let me go with it. Everyone in the band is a virtuoso, so I wanted to be like Phil Jackson. Weve done the overkill before. The other big thing on the Blues Traveler resume, besides Run-Around, was the H.O.R.D.E. festival. The traveling, multi-act jamboree, launched in 1992, was Poppers way of coalescing a few nascent regional movements Phish in New England, Widespread Panic in the Southeast, Blues Traveler in New York City and turning it into a jam-band nation. The concept worked almost too well; those three bands became huge national draws, and the H.O.R.D.E. (an acronym for the awkward Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) has led to such mammoth events as the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee.Like Run-Around, the H.O.R.D.E. was very much a mixed bag of attention and hassles. Damn near drove me crazy, said Popper of the festival, which survived through 1998. I was more into promoting things, having to explain to James Browns people why James Brown isnt worth $50,000 in New York. And that Neil Youngs people dont want to be associated with Primus people, and Primus people dont want to be associated with Neil Youngs people and theyre co-headlining the bill.And why the hell would I want to do that? I realized Ive got a much better job. Singing songs and playing them thats a great job. Promoters die young. Theyre like mafiosi only they dont get to kill anyone.
Blues Traveler performs Saturday at 9 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen, 450 S. Galena St. Tickets are $48 in advance and $53 the day of the email@example.com
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