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The offbeat Blues Traveler looks like a comer
by Jay Lustig
The Star- Ledger, Newark, NJ
Nov 4th, 1991

NEW YORK - The list of rock'n'roll musicians who have done interesting things with the harmonica is about as long as the list of rock'n'roll musicians who have lived at the White House.

There seems to be an unwritten rule that the only thing a harmonica can do in a rock context is repeat some time-honored blues riffs to add a bit of blues flavoring.

John Popper, who performed Thursday night with his band, Blues Traveler, for a large and enthusiastic crowd of Halloween revelers at Roseland in New York City (the band will also perform Friday at 8 at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, and open for the Jerry Garcia Band Nov. 15 at Madison Square Garden), has thrown this unwritten rule out the window.

Throughout his brief career, he has played his harmonica with the freewheeling abandon of a guitar hero.

The success of Blues Traveler is unthinkable without his harmonica playing. Everything else about this band, including Popper's songwriting, lead vocals and guitar playing, falls within the realm of the ordinary.

Drummer Brendan Hill, guitarist Chan Kinchla and bassist Bobby Sheehan are able but far from remarkable musicians. The same mildly funky mid-tempo beat is recycled endlessly throughout the band's material, and few of the songs feature memorable hooks. The lyrics, though appealingly earnest, are frequently awkward.

Popper's singing often sounds rushed, and his insistence on rhyming lyrics leads to such amateurish lines as "The Earth, a piece of fruit/Don't blame the maggots when they loot" and "Life, I embrace you/I shall honor and disgrace you/Please forgive if I replace you/You see I'm going through some pain."

On the other hand, the band is capable of concise catchiness ("All in the Groove" from the new Travelers & Thieves album, and "But Anyway" and "Mulling it Over" from the band's 1990 self-titled debut), and "Alone" is an affecting ballad that should be a cornerstone of the band's live shows for years to come.

Blues Traveler is also capable of throwing its audience curveballs, such as the ritual-like destruction of a pumpkin (the significance was hard to fathom, but it made for diverting theater anyway) at Roseland, and a breathtaking segment where Hill and Sheehan accelerated the beat to a tempo approximating thrash-metal, and Popper, soloing, miraculously kept up with them.

Still, throughout the show, I kept wondering how the band's success could be possible. And then Popper would take another wildly careening solo, and my question would be answered.

There's also a sociological explanation. Bands that improvise as much as Blues Traveler do tend to have the most loyal fans - people who don't want to miss a single show, since each show is different, and the next one might be the best. And when people keep coming back, something of a community is formed, encouraging attendance even more.

Popper and Hill first began performing together in 1983, when they were students at Princeton High School. Kinchla and Sheehan joined, respectively, in 1986 and 1987. Soon after the lineup solidified, the band began finding regular work in New York clubs. The band's debut album was released by A&M Records early last year, led to opening gigs for the likes of the Allman Brothers, Santana, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Little Feat. Travelers & Thieves, also on A&M, came out in September.

Even without a hit single, Blues Traveler is now able to headline at New York's biggest rock clubs, and at large theaters such as the Count Basie. And the band's following seems to be growing. With more consistent songwriting, more variety in the rhythm section, and the development of a more soulful vocal style by Popper, the band's following could easily become huge.