ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 20, 1993
In the liner notes to the new Blues Traveler release, Save His Soul, John Popper is credited with “vocals, harmonica, Irish whistle, acoustic 12-string, electric guitar, 12-gauge shotgun, and 9-mm pistol”. Now, I didn’t see any shotguns or pistols at the Commodore last Thursday (May 13), but when I did sneak backstage to have a word with Popper after the band’s steamy first set, he did flash a folding fighting stick and a four-inch blade (“It’ll go through a car door!”) from beneath the bandolier-like harp belt straddling his huge torso.
For a guy who was easily the most popular person in the house, he was certainly ready for enemies—or at least everyday life in his native Brooklyn. Fortunately, Popper’s handy tools of self-defence stayed where they were during the stunning second set, and an arsenal of harps was the only weaponry he produced to slay the near-capacity crowd.
Victim of a leg-breaking motorcycle accident that occurred during the recording of Save His Soul, Popper was pushed on-stage in a wheelchair—the band jokingly calls this their “steel wheels” tour—to sit up front and wail away. A dangerous harmonica player with a melodic, whistling-type style reminiscent of Stevie Wonder and session ace Toots Thielemans—though he claims Jimi Hendrix as his biggest influence—Popper is also a chameleon-like vocalist who can sing it sweet and fanciful, then belt it out in a bluesy rage. He displayed more energy sitting on his butt than many rockers do leaping about, and his sweaty efforts had both the dance floor and the aisles packed with freewheeling hoofers.
Although Popper was by far the star of the show, his bandmates—guitarist Chan Kinchla, bassist Bobby Sheehan, and drummer Brendan Hill—did their part to bring Blues Traveler’s meaty, improvisatory blues-rock tunes to fiery life. At one point, the band invited local guitar great/street busker Tim Butler up to jam, and this caused Popper to point out, “Ya’ll have some really good musicians up here.”
You’re right, John, we sure do. And if you’re any indication, there’s a few in New York, too.