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The Blues Are Back
by Robert L. Doerschuk
Nashville Rage, Nashville, TN
Aug 8th, 2002

John Popper, a photographer and I huddled several years ago in the sun-streamed offices of a major record label in Manhattan. The Blues Traveler bus was blocking traffic 20-odd floors below as we got ready for a photo shoot to go with a story I was writing on the band's colorful frontman.

During the interview Popper sat in a chair near the windows overlooking midtown. He was as incongruous, amid the sleek Danish furnishings and potted ferns, as a bull eyeing joggers in Central Park. Dressed in denim and road-dusted boots, he sported a beat-up ranger hat and what looked like ammo belts crisscrossing his chest and belly. Inside each compartment, where you might expect to find a bullet waiting to thread through a machine gun, was a harmonica.

Clearly, Popper was loaded to blow.

But to blow with the blinding virtuosity that was his trademark with the Travelers, you need some wind. And, for all the expanse packed within his four-hundred-pound frame, wind was in short supply.

"Okay," he told the photographer. "Here's the deal. When you say 'go,' I'm going to stand up and start doing stupid things. Bob," he said to me, "keep your eye on your watch. When we hit 30 seconds, you say 'stop,' I sit down, and that's the end of the shoot."

And so it went. For half a minute Popper mugged, popped his eyes, waved his arms around ... and precisely when we hit 30 seconds, he sank back into the chair and took several minutes to catch his breath.

This was John Popper circa 1997, just before I put him on the cover of Musician magazine. After a while he rose and, leaning heavily on two canes, lumbered painfully toward the elevator. It was impossible to reconcile his painful exit with the dynamic energy that animated every Blues Traveler performance I'd ever seen.

Today, it's a different story. Popper has dropped several hundred pounds, following surgery that involved stapling his stomach. "Once he had that operation, it was very difficult for him to eat, because that changes your body so much," Blues Traveler keyboardist Ben Wilson tells The Rage. "He was burning down his body, and as a result he was kind of cranky. But even when he was in the worst mood you've ever seen, he left that off the stage every single night. And, as he got through it, you saw him gradually transform into a guy who felt better about himself at the deepest level."

Other trials challenged the band at roughly the same time: the death of their original bass player, Bobby Sheehan, and, on a more positive note, their expansion to a five-piece with Wilson's arrival. On their most recent album, last year's Bridge, they unveiled a sound that anchored the improvisational essence of their previous work into a discrete but solid keyboard base.

"When I was still in the 'aim to please' mode, I was more concerned with what they thought than what I thought," Wilson says. "But now that we're writing songs for our next album, I'm coming in with, 'Hey, I have this idea,' and we roll with that. The guys might not like everything I bring in, which is cool, but even if a particular idea doesn't work out, maybe something gets left behind that you can run with the next time."

With the first of what they see as a string of annual live albums, What You and I Have Been Through, poised for release this fall, Blues Traveler clearly has its act together and its eyes on the long haul. "I would love to put out a new album every two years," Wilson admits. "For me, the studio is the most creative place to be. But I've come to accept that playing live is the heart and soul of Blues Traveler and that's way fine for me too."