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by Anni Layne
JAMTV, National
Jul 14th, 1998



Blues Traveler without John Popper on the harmonica is like Christmas without Santa Claus on the roof. And ol' St. Nick is missing in action.

As the wheels begin churning on Blues Traveler's next musical endeavor, Popper is disavowing the mystical mouthpiece that made him a household name when "Run-Around" claimed its throne high atop Radio Mountain. Nearly four years later, the loveable, ever-quotable sage of the H.O.R.D.E. Tour is learning to separate himself from his instrument.

Shifting his focus from tradition to tall tales, Popper has constructed a detailed and intense thematic album based loosely on Aesop's fable of the sun and the wind. Whereas the philosopher's legend demonstrated how kindness can prevail over severity, Popper's rendition draws on his own rock 'n' roll lifestyle to illustrate how balance creates bliss.

"The key to a theme album is to not sell the plot above the songs," Popper told JAMTV backstage at the H.O.R.D.E. show in Tinley Park, Ill., last Saturday. "This album is largely autobiographical. I'm so used to being on the road and living alone it's scary, but I'm working on that now - on the balance ... at the same time, you can't deny your nomadic tendencies, especially when you have a talent to share."

Popper's most notable talent - that rare gift for drawing blues and brawn out of a relatively unglamorous instrument - has been banished to the sidelines for this venture, he said. No longer the sun to Blues Traveler's universe, Popper's harmonica will be used in fits and starts as an accentuating instrument rather than a centerpiece.

"Not having the harmonica to rely on is making us work harder as a band," he said. "The important thing for me to do is to do what makes sense musically."

The possible alienation of diehard fans does not trouble Popper, who insists that his audience will gladly mature with his band - harmonica or no harmonica. And on that note, Blues Traveler took the stage Saturday at the New World Music Theatre stomping out an unfamiliar song that nonetheless seized the attention of all alert ears in the crowd. Prefaced by a guitar introduction by Popper and main axeman Chan Kinchla that stretched into Grateful Dead territory, the song featured Popper brandishing a sword and emitting a Mel Tormé-esque scat that took the place of his normal harmonica noodling.

More exploratory material will likely slip into the Blues Traveler set throughout H.O.R.D.E., which wraps up Sept. 5 in Portland, Ore. Following that finale, Popper and company will breathe deeply and duck back into the studio to put Aesop down on tape. They expect the yet untitled follow-up to 1997's Straight on Till Morning to hit stores in the summer or fall of 1998. (Anni Layne)