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John Popper Project: blues harp and turntables

Stewart OksenhornAspen, CO Colorado
Singer/harmonica player John Popper leads his quartet, the John Popper Project, to a show Sunday at Belly Up Aspen. (Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen Times)
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ASPEN Several years ago, after meeting and jamming with DJ Logic at a San Francisco benefit concert, John Popper put together the John Popper Project. The quartet, a side gig from Popper’s day job as leader of the long-running jam-band Blues Traveler, featured one of the more unlikely combinations of instruments in rock music: DJ Logic on turntables and Popper on harmonica, with a rhythm section of drummer Marcus Bleeker and bassist Tad Kinchla.

“I said, ‘turntables and harmonica – OK,'” said Kinchla, who has also been a member of Blues Traveler since 2000, following the death of Bobby Sheehan, the band’s original bassist.So Kinchla – whose brother, Chan, is the founding guitarist in Blues Traveler – is used to odd ideas and happenings from Popper. When Popper was arrested March 7 near Spokane – his car, driven by a friend, clocked at 111 mph, and alleged to contain rifles, handguns, a switchblade, police sirens and lights, and a small amount of marijuana – it wasn’t exactly cause for alarm for his bandmate.”He doesn’t lack his idiosyncrasies,” said Kinchla, who grew up watching Popper and his brother play their first Blues Traveler gigs, in the mid-’80s, around their shared hometown of Princeton, N.J. “He’s a very unique character, and eccentric guy,”Kinchla, who declines to speak in specifics about the incident, says the core facts present only a part of the picture. “In my opinion, it’s frustrating – you read something, read about a scenario, and there’s only one slice of what’s going on. You don’t know the history, seeing that episode.”He’s a very responsible collector of guns, and I’ve always known him like that.”

The eccentricities begin with the choice of musical instrument. Popper has taken the harmonica, known mostly for its use in Delta blues, and made it into a full-force rock ‘n’ roll instrument. Popper typically wears an arsenal of harmonicas, bandolier-style on his chest. “He saw ‘The Blues Brothers’ and fell in love with it, with Elwood Blues,” explained Kinchla.Blues Traveler, which also includes drummer Brendan Hill and keyboardist Ben Wilson, rode Popper’s harmonica and rapid-fire vocal style to fame on the jam-band circuit. In fact, Popper was instrumental in creating the jam-band circuit as it exists today. He gave birth to the H.O.R.D.E. festival, an early ’90s traveling tour that pooled the resources and fans of such bands as Phish, Widespread Panic and Blues Traveler. In 1994, Blues Traveler experienced a wider and even more unexpected sort of fame, when their single “Run-Around,” from the album “Four,” became a massive radio and MTV hit.Blues Traveler is at work on a pair of projects. They recently recorded an acoustic album that revisits the band’s past material. That album, recorded in Austin and expected out in late summer, features hip-hop/blues singer G. Love, guitarist Charlie Sexton and more guests. (Kinchla divulged that Popper was returning to his Washington state home from Austin when he was arrested.) The band has also started writing new material for their next album.The John Popper Project is a few steps removed from Blues Traveler. On the band’s self-titled debut CD, released in October, has the quartet moving mostly at a more relaxed pace, dropping influences of soul, hip-hop and reggae into their blend. And while the music sounds a little different, Kinchla says that playing it is a whole new ballgame compared to the dense, aggressive rock of Blues Traveler.”What’s kind of cool for me, and cool for John, is you can react a lot quicker to what Logic does when there aren’t so many chordal instruments,” he said. “Here, we’ve stripped away all the chordal instruments. I play six-string bass, so I can play chords sometimes, but there aren’t any huge, chordal elements that are clashing here.



“You have to be a coordinated, well-honed band to blend all those chords. With the DJ aspect, we’re trying to create a beat, not trying to make it a packaged song. It’s very much rooted in keeping that consistent beat going. It lets us be more patient.”While any band Popper is part of will always be distinguished by the harmonica sounds, Kinchla says it is Popper as a singer that he finds most impressive. Popper is known for packing an absurd number of words into a line of music.”His ability for retention of lyrics, and how he can sing,” said Kinchla. “When he rolls into the studio at 8 o’clock at night and do a perfect performance in one take, with no tuning issues. I wish I could do that.”Away from the stage and studio, Kinchla is likewise impressed. “He’s good for quotes, for sure,” he said of Popper. “There’s no shortage of comments. He’s got that East Coast, wise-guy thing, which we all do. A lot of sarcasm. He speaks his mind.”Tickets to the John Popper Project are $22 in advance and $25 on the day of the show. Doors open at 8 p.m. Show time is 10 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen, 450 S. Galena St.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com