John Popper’s speedy harp licks in Vancouver bring to mind Jan Hammer on Jeff Beck’s Wired tour


By Steve Newton

Blues Traveler singer-harpist John Popper may be the most awe-inspiring harmonica player in the world of rock, but what really makes him special is the way he couples the mastery of his instrument with truly outstanding vocals. There aren’t that many virtuoso instrumentalists who can also sing with such assured power and conviction—the Stevie Ray Vaughans of the world are few and far between. And when you’ve got a larger-than-life front man like Popper soaking up onstage inspiration from the talented likes of guitarist Chan Kinchla, bassist Bob Sheehan, and drummer Brendan Hill, it’s no wonder the sparks do fly.

They were spinning off the Commodore stage as from a welding torch for more than two hours last Saturday (December 2).

Although Blues Traveler has played Vancouver a number of times, the locals always seem astounded by the iron-lunged harp solos that Popper pulls off on nearly every tune. While you can spot traces of Stevie Wonder and harmonica pioneer Toots Thielemans in his melodious approach, Popper’s full-bore, no-stopping-to-breathe style is uniquely his. He claims that his biggest influence on harmonica is Jimi Hendrix, but when Popper goes off on a full-speed tear it only reminds me of keyboardist Jan Hammer, circa 1976, with Jeff Beck on the Wired tour.

It should really take 10 fingers to do what Popper does with one set of lips.

The band rolled out selections from its four releases, plus a stompin’ version of War’s “Low Rider”, from the recent Hempilation benefit CD for marijuana-law reform. A few club-goers were doing some on-site reforming of their own, but the vast majority of the sellout crowd was crammed onto the dance floor and squeezing up toward the stage.

At one point Popper made the announcement that this would be the last show before construction workers begin work on replacing the Commodore’s famous sprung floor, but he would later renege and inform the masses that there were still a few gigs to come before the renovation. (Apparently someone from Spirit of the West, which plays the venue this week, set him straight backstage during Blues Traveler’s half-hour break.) Still, many fans acted as if it was indeed the last chance to knock volumes off the shelves at the Granville Book Company downstairs, and set upon the 66-year-old floor with a vengeance.

The band started its second set on a gentler note with “I’m Alone”, a mellow number that featured the irrepressible Popper on lead guitar. Set against his massive torso, the instrument looked about the size of a ukulele, but Popper’s pudgy fingers managed to wring some exquisite sounds from it during a graceful solo.

Before long all subtlety was abandoned, though, as Blues Traveler became bent on blasting toward evening’s end with the rowdy, improv-heavy blues-rock jams that first brought it to prominence (and landed it on a recent episode of Roseanne). By the end of the night the Commodore’s upstairs balcony had transformed into an active dance floor itself, leaving you to wonder whether they’ll have to replace that someday too.

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