ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, OCT. 3, 1991
By Steve Newton
If you were ever a big fan of the Blues Brothers, chances are you appreciate a few chuckles tossed in with your listening. Blues Traveler singer/harmonica player John Popper certainly does. In fact, it was his love of comedy that first got him started on the road to rhythm and blues.
“I was a big fan of Steve Martin and John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, then I heard the Blues Brothers and started getting into the music end of it. Somebody said Dan Aykroyd sounded like Paul Butterfield, so I went and checked out a Paul Butterfield album, and after that I started getting into old blues, like Elmore James,” says the 24-year-old. “Then I found Jimi Hendrix and that was it. ‘Voodoo Chile’ did something to me.”
With his initial considerations of a career in stand-up comedy taking a back seat to music, Popper made a good move in the latter direction when he enrolled in the New York School for Social Research. The art school offered a particularly interesting jazz program, led by saxophone great Artie Lawrence, who spent six years as first alto on The Tonight Show.
“His idea was to get 50, 60 kids in a room with the best jazz musicians in New York City,” says Popper, “and there were no rules. The next year they started making course requirements, and it got more like a school, but that first year it was anything we wanted it to be. We learned a lot.”
The nucleus of Blues Traveler—which plays the Town Pump this Monday (October 7)—formed when Popper and drummer Brendan Hill met as New Jersey high-school students in 1983. They came across guitarist Chan Kinchla in ’86. “He had a wah-wah pedal and knew how to jam it,” recalls Popper. “All the other guys cared about was looking good with their guitars.”
Bassist Bobby Sheehan rounded out the band in ’87, and the foursome got their first taste of live performance at New Jersey keg parties. When they could get away with it, that is.
“They usually got broke up by the cops,” says Popper, the oldest member of the band. “There was a lot of under-age drinking, and they’d hear us playing all over town, you know, cause we’re loud. Sometimes they’d know about gigs we were gonna play before we even got there. They kinda had a file on us, I think.”
Blues Traveler went from weekend parties to a regular gig at a New York club called Nightingales. They played four sets a night for 50 bucks, but that’s where they learned how to play—and how to draw from as many musical influences as possible. They dedicated their new album to all those styles.
“That’s why we called it Travelers & Thieves. When we were writing the songs, before we had names for them, we were going, ‘Let’s play that Paul Simon song,’ or ‘Let’s play that song that sounds like Led Zeppelin.’ They all sounded like other people’s songs.”
In concert, Popper looks a bit like a Mexican bandito with his hefty, bandolier-like harmonica belt. Its main purpose is to hold his array of harps, but the accessory comes in handy off the stage as well.
“It’s great ’cause you can change keys in mid-song,” says Popper, “but it also gets me a seat on the subway. People don’t know what they are.”