Hey John Popper, can you spare me a minute? | AspenTimes.com

Hey John Popper, can you spare me a minute?

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Singer-harmonica player John Popper leads his John Popper Project, featuring DJ Logic, to a show March 28 at Belly Up Aspen. (Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times Weekly)

John Popper is one of those musicians who seems to be bursting with something to say.

Popper’s main vocal style is a rapid-fire assault of words. He seems to be trying to cram as many syllables into a measure as possible; this sample from the 1994 hit “Hook” is sung in one breath : “I’ve tried well no in fact I lied / Could be financial suicide but I’ve got too much pride inside / To hide or slide / I’ll do as I’ll decide and let it ride till until I’ve died / And only then shall I abide by this tide.”

Of course, Popper’s harmonica playing gives his singing a run for the money in terms of density.

I was unaware that Popper played guitar at all seriously. Then I saw Blues Traveler, the band he fronts, play a concert in Angel Fire, N.M., some 12 years ago, and his six-string skills were indelibly impressed on me. The guitar propped up on a stand, Popper played one-handed leads ” thick, fast, loud leads ” while holding his harmonica in the other hand, so he could simultaneously wail on that.

At that same concert, Popper returned to the mike again and again to announce, abashedly, that he was about to unveil yet another brand-new song. The tentative quality to those announcements was either due to being apologetic for subjecting the crowd to yet more new material, or feigned embarrassment over his outpouring of productivity.

Naturally, Blues Traveler ” which was a nonstop touring machine since Popper co-founded the band in New Jersey in the mid-’80s and released nine studio albums ” has not fully contained his ambitions. For several years in the mid-’90s, he took part in the High Plains Drifters, which was formed exclusively to tour the Rocky Mountain ski resorts. (Press me on what is my favorite concert ever, and chances are I will pick the Drifters’ 1997 show at the Double Diamond.) In 1999, Popper released two side projects: the solo album “Zygote” and the live recording “Croaking at Toads,” with the jam-band supergroup Frogwings. Two years ago, he formed the John Popper Project, a group featuring turntablist DJ Logic that explores a fusion of hip-hop and funk. The Project released a self-titled album in 2006 and has toured extensively. It makes its second Aspen appearance on Friday, March 28, at Belly Up Aspen.

It was Popper who conceived the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, the traveling circus in the mid-’90s that cemented the idea of a jam-band scene. Popper has also been a recurring guest player with the CBS Orchestra on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

Clearly, the guy has a lot to express. So why has it been impossible for me to get him on the telephone for an interview, after more than a decade of trying? The usual answer ” as it was this past week ” is that he is finishing up a new record.

I once came very close to nailing it down. A year ago, we had a date and time ready to go in advance of a Popper Project date at Belly Up. A week before the scheduled interview, I read the news ” that Popper had been arrested in Washington state, for speeding and possession of guns and drugs. I assumed the interview was shot. But strangely, I heard nothing, until the day before the interview, when his publicist called to inform me that Popper wouldn’t be speaking to the press until his legal situation had been cleared up.

As a consolation prize, I was invited backstage to meet Popper and, interestingly enough, I couldn’t get him to stop talking. As I expected, he was sociable nearly to the point of mania, and funny as hell. The road manager was trying to hustle him onto the stage; Popper ignored him as he still had a few observations on ski towns and women to impart.

Maybe I need to apologize for a past indiscretion. During the H.O.R.D.E. years, I interviewed Bobby Sheehan, Blues Traveler’s late bassist. He mentioned that the musicians on the tour had fun coming up for alternate names for the festival, whose official name was the awkward “Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere.” Among the made-up names Sheehan shared with me was “Having Our Rectums Detrimentally Enlarged,” which, of course, I promptly put in the newspaper. Sheehan told me later on that he never imagined he’d see those words in print (he didn’t know The Aspen Times), and caught hell for it.

So, John:

I’m sorry. Now, on to the interview?

Hoping our request deserves entertaining.


As noted previously in this space, the spring offseason schedule at Belly Up is already getting filled with big names, including Hot Tuna, Nick Lowe, Shelby Lynne and Victor Wooten. The latest act to be added is Mike Ness, the Social Distortion frontman who leads his own band to the club May 25.

But for what will likely be the highlight of the offseason, music fans are going to have to hit the road and head for … Grand Junction. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.

Wilco is playing the 950-seat Avalon Theatre in downtown Junction on May 7. It is an interesting venue choice for a band that, at least since the 2002 release of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” has defined the cutting edge of rock. And it’s not as if Jeff Tweedy and his mates have dropped off in quality; Wilco’s albums, including last year’s “Sky Blue Sky,” have maintained an impeccable level of quality.

The good news: Junction is less than two hours’ drive, and the Avalon Theater is a gem. And there’s still hope that Belly Up can pull something off: Wilco plays Missoula, Mont., on May 5, then has an off day before hitting Junction. Belly Up, at the moment, has nothing scheduled for May 6.