John Popper brings Duskray Troubadours to Aspen
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – John Popper has this fantasy. He’s taking the stage with Blues Traveler, the band he has fronted for 20-plus years, that he has led through arena tours, that he has taken to the top of the charts, that has helped lead the jam-band realm. In this vision, Popper isn’t satisfying the audience with the peppy crowd favorite “Run-Around,” nor is he coaxing Hendrix-esque magic out of his harmonica. Instead, he is peeing all over himself, literally.
“I walk up to the mike and urinate a big stream, and lie down and go fetal. Except I’m awake,” he said. Popper calls this scenario a fantasy, rather than a nightmare, because it is a vision he welcomes. It is this fear of utter failure that kicks him into playing mode, gig after gig, decade after decade.
“That’s the fantasy that gets me in gear to perform every night – that, ‘What if I screw up?’ fear,” the 43-year-old said from his home near Seattle. “Every night, I have this auditory hallucination that someone in the crowd is going, ‘Oh, he’s going to miss that note.'”
Screwing up in Blues Traveler can be a pretty tough order. The crowd knows much of the repertoire; Popper and his mates – two of whom, guitarist Chan Kinchla and drummer Brendan Hill, have been playing with Popper since high school in Princeton, N.J. – have the songs down cold. And Popper, even on a bad day, is a superhuman musician, taking the harmonica places nobody could have imagined for the smallest of instruments.
So Popper has gotten in the habit of putting himself in situations where failure is more of a possibility. He records and performs as a guest about as often as he can; his list of collaborators runs from Metallica to the Dave Matthews Band, Dolly Parton to John Oates. He has sat in countless times with the band on “Late Show with David Letterman.” Popper has taken the occasional on-screen part. In the early ’90s, he founded the H.O.R.D.E. tour, which took up-and-coming post-Grateful Dead bands and formed them into the jam-band scene. And there have been a series of side projects, including the John Popper Project, in which Popper’s main cohort was a turntablist, DJ Logic.
The latest chance for Popper to pee down his own leg is called John Popper and the Duskray Troubadours. The sextet’s inaugural tour lands in Aspen on Tuesday, March 8, with a gig at Belly Up. Opening the show is singer-songwriter Lisa Bouchelle, whose new album, “Bleu Room with a Red Vase,” features a duet with Popper on “Only the Tequila Talkin’.”
“I’m nervous in a good way,” Popper said a week before the band was scheduled to play its first-ever gig, on Feb. 23, in Seattle. “I’ve never done this before, just up and decide to do something with a friend of mine.”
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In fact, the Duskray Troubadours are not a huge gamble. For one thing, the group has already recorded a self-titled album that was released this past week. “John Popper and the Duskray Troubadours” is 12 songs that are a step away from Blues Traveler material – mellower, more focused on the songs and less so on the harmonica and guitar solos.
And Popper’s principal partner in the band, Jono Manson, is hardly an unknown quantity. In the mid-’90s, the two formed High Plains Drifter, which took a few quick runs through the Rocky Mountains, including a few stops at Aspen’s old Double Diamond. With Manson as the frontman, and Popper limiting himself to the harmonica, the band managed to blow the roof off the club. In Duskray Troubadours, though, Popper is center stage, with Manson taking on some of the lead vocal duties. (Rounding out the band are guitarists Aaron Beavers and Kevin Trainor, bassist Steve Lindsay, and drummer Mark Clark, who was also part of High Plains Drifter.)
The relationship between Popper and Manson dates back further than High Plains Drifter, to the late ’80s, when Blues Traveler was playing Greenwich Village clubs – Nightingales, Dan Lynch’s – and the jam-band universe was being born. Manson, who led the band Joey Miserable and the Worms, is often referred to as the Godfather of the scene – not only a standout singer and songwriter, but a savvy guy who knew the ins and outs of the music game.
“Jono Manson is a stud muffin,” Popper said. “When we came to New York to learn how to be a band, he was the older brother. At the New School jazz department, we were learning some things during the day. And at night, we’d go to Nightingales to watch Jono and learn a bunch of other things – how to sell drinks, keep a bar full of people happy and dancing all night. Those two things made us a band – how to make music, and also how to keep the flow of the room.”
To Popper, Manson is a master at gauging the temperature of a bar. “He can take a a quiet moment, or a big, drunken party moment, and make everyone feel good. And everything in between,” Popper said. “I do that as well – how to take people into your moment – and I learned that from Jono. He takes you into the songs; he eats, sleeps and drinks.”
Popper and Manson collaborated on “Almost Home,” a 1995 album that featured most of Blues Traveler, and the two did the High Plains Drifter shows. But “Almost Home” was a Manson album, and High Plains Drifter never recorded, meaning Popper and Manson have never done a full-scale project together. And as Blues Traveler hit its 20th anniversary, in 2007, Popper was starting to itch for a new way to work.
“I was getting very frustrated with the assembly-line approach Blues Traveler was taking,” he said. The remedy was the Duskray Troubadours, which presented new opportunities for Popper.
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One opening was co-writing songs. The Duskray Troubadours album, produced by Manson and recorded on his home turf in Santa Fe, has several tracks co-written by Popper and Manson. (Beavers and Trainor also contribute to the writing.)
“All the bands I liked growing up, they collaborated with outside people, other writers,” Popper said. “But in Blues Traveler, there got to be a pride in doing it ourselves. Like we were letting the Beatles down in my mind if we didn’t. But we were denying ourselves a huge asset.”
That denial phase is over. Using the Duskray Troubadours experience as a springboard, Blues Traveler has brought in other writers as it embarked on its next album. The band has had writing sessions in Austin – where two members of Blues Traveler live – with such Texas talents as Alejandro Escovedo and Carrie Rodriguez, as well as Ron Sexsmith, Aaron Beavers, and Chris Barron of the Spin Doctors, another group that came out of downtown Manhattan in the late ’80s.
Co-writing has enlivened Popper. “You forget what’s cool about yourself. You work with other people, you’re reminded what’s cool about you,” he said.
With the Duskray Troubadours, Popper is also being reminded that music doesn’t need to be a thousand notes a minute, at maximum decibels, from first song to last.
“It lets me focus more on melody and subtlety,” Popper said. “Blues Traveler created a sound and people expected us to play that – a lot of acrobatics and a lot of dynamical 10s. It’s nice to go to a dynamical four. And that lets the harmonica playing change a little, which I love.
“I don’t have to be Yngwie Malmsteen about it,” Popper continued, referring to the famously fleet-fingered guitarist. “There are only so many scale runs you can do. What I don’t ever want to do is be mindlessly riffing. I just hope people notice.”
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