John Popper is one lucky fellow. First, he's lucky to be alive
having been involved in a high-speed motorcycle crash last year
that left him with broken limbs and a long confinement to a
wheelchair. Second, he considers himself fortunate to have four
college coeds arrayed at his feet on a gorgeous late-April
afternoon. They are there for a reason - to make sure the chair
in which Blues Traveler's injured frontman is seated doesn't rock
& roll off the platform.
The scene is the campus of Penn State University, where Blues
Traveler is headlining an annual charity rockathon for cancer
research organized by a local fraternity. Each of Popper's
volunteers holds fast to a chair leg, and during the course of a
high-voltage, two-hour-plus show, the corpulent harp player does
not tumble over, under, sideways or down. That kind of frenzy is
left to the audience, estimated at more than 7500, roughly half
of whom are pressed against the fence between field and stage,
throbbing intently to the music. The mellower contingent has
spread out on the grass, enjoying the balmy weather. Even Popper
pauses between songs to take notice of the surroundings:
"Look at those mountains over there," he says, eyeing
the brushy brown hills rimming the Nittany Valley, now streaked
with late-afternoon sunlight. "This has turned out to be a
After all the tribulations of the past year - among them,
Popper's accident, his father's hospitalization and the death of
a crew member's dad - the clouds appear to be lifting for Blues
Traveler, the rising New York band for which Popper sings and
plays harmonica. Its latest album, Save His Soul, is the
band's strongest yet, combining the energy of its 1990 debut, Blues
Traveler, with the ambitious reach of Travelers and
Thieves, the band's second release.
Popper's broken right femur is on the mend, and he's progressing
from a wheelchair to crutches to a cane to, eventually, his own
two feet. After an eight-month hiatus the band is back on the
road with plans to segue from its own tour of clubs and midsize
halls to the second installment of HORDE (Horizons of Rock
Developing Everywhere), a traveling circus of jam-orientated
bands that will play the summertime sheds.
With its dynamic synthesis of New York bar-band energy, San
Francisco jam-band sensibility and solid rhythm & blues
groove bolstering it all, Blues Traveler is at the creative
forefront of the loose amalgam of groups gathered under the HORDE
umbrella. In terms of commercial success, Blues Traveler has yet
to match the pace set by fellow HORDE-men the Spin Doctors, a
band led by Popper's longtime friend Chris Barron. Yet if Blues
Traveler hasn't quite caught up with its old pals, the friendly
rivalry has given the band members something to work toward - and
they are nothing if not a group driven by challenges.
"We've always had that sense of competition with them,"
Popper says. "We'd do a double bill at Wetlands - a New York
club - and the job of whoever went on first was to kick the other
band's ass as hard as they could, so the other band would have to
come out at top speed, then go from there. They got a tour bus
first, so we had to get a tour bus. It was like Russia; we had to
keep up with those Yankees. Then they took off, and we knew what
was going on. So now we're like, 'Okay, that's how it's gonna be,
here we come.'"
The group, despite Popper's physical limitations, is burning it
up onstage again. Back at Penn State, the members of Blues
Traveler push themselves as hard as they did in the days of their
battle of the bands - no mean feat, since they haven't slept in
two days. Popper's rapid-fire spray of cleanly articulated notes
is astounding. He and ball-of-fire guitarist Chan Kinchla play in
tandem, then break apart and trade licks over the steady,
unrelenting drive of bassist Bobby Sheehan and drummer Brendan
Hill. "If you think of it as a big wave," Sheehan says,
"the shape of the wave is by them, but the force of the wave
is from us."
At concert's end, the members of Blues Traveler - a band whose
musical hoodoo is best experienced live - actually resemble
erupting volcanoes. Sheehan, legs spread and rooted to the floor,
thrums his strings without pause. The back of Hill's T-shirt has
turned dark from sweat. Kinchla's long locks have become glued to
his face. And Popper rises unsteadily to his feet in a climactic
moment, as if on cue from a faith healer.
Afterward, in the backstage area, Popper repays his female
assistants by signing their shirts and handing out harmonicas.
Popper is a walking warehouse of harps, packing ten at a time in
an M1 rifle clip whose pouches neatly accommodate the
instruments, which he keeps arranged by key. Harmonicas are not
all he drags around; tethered to this canvas survival kit are a
telescope, hand tools, flashlight and some serious-looking
knives. Popper, shrugging with all the offhand cool of a native
New Yorker, cracks: "It gets me a seat on the subway."
After four consecutive gigs, the band is enjoying a day off.
Popper, a completely nocturnal animal, promises to call later in
the evening when he's ready to talk. The phone rings at 4:15
a.m., and a cheerful voice asks, "Are you ready?"
Wearing a green terry-cloth robe and nursing a soft drink, Popper
has set up a chessboard in his hotel room and is eager to play.
But none of this compares with the sight of his unruffled bed,
into which a Civil War cutlass has been plunged. His hat hangs
from the handle. He explains, "We had a huge row last night,
and I almost quit the tour. You see that sword in my bed? That
was the decision to stay, made right there. This wheelchair life
has been getting to me. It's been a rough couple of months. But
Bob and Chan came down and reminded me that I'd go nuts at home,
which is true. Besides, I don't like quitting. Doesn't sit well
with me. So I went, 'All right, I'll do it.' Slam."
Generally, Popper sleeps from six in the morning till two in the
afternoon. Television is his constant late-night companion; he'll
gaze at the squawk box for hours until he's seized by an idea, at
which point he'll roll over on his belly and begin scribbling
songs on a pad. "This is a great writing tool," he
says, thumping the TV set. He also keeps several Penguin atlases
of world history close by.
Writing and performing are therapy for Popper. "I get to air
my angst in front of thousands of people, and they all reassure
me," he says, marveling at the idea. "Imagine that! You
get to tell about the girl who blew you off, you get to piss and
moan about it every night, and 3000 people will go, 'I know
exactly how you feel; how could she do that?' Do you know how
good you feel? It really is addicting."
Popper found his way to music after a difficult childhood. Born
in Cleveland in 1967, he spent much of his youth in Stamford,
Connecticut, before his family relocated to Princeton, New
Jersey, when he was fifteen. A candid conversationalist, he
matter-of-factly dredges the past. "I was an anti-social,
obnoxious little fat kid," he says. "People told me I
was not going to amount to anything. If you're stupid enough to
believe people like that...I didn't have anything to feel good
about. So I kind of got reactionary and became a guy who'd make
weird noises walking down a hall. I'd do anything for attention.
I'd eat pencils for money. It was really sad. There were things I
wanted to say, but I wasn't expressing myself very well."
He found an outlet in comedy, forming a duo with a classmate. One
of their best impersonations was the Blues Brothers, since Popper
looked like Belushi and his partner played the harmonica like
Aykroyd. Popper himself took up the harp and began delving into
music, discovering Paul Butterfield, Elmore James, John Lee
Hooker, Little Walter, Jean "Toots" Thielemans and Jimi
Hendrix. Around school, he became known as "that harmonica
guy" and was bumped up to the Princeton High School studio
band after wowing classmates and teachers with a hot solo during
the band's rehearsal of Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With
It was in the school band that Popper met Brendan Hill, a
London-born drummer. Popper and Hill formed their first band in
1983, playing keg parties for money under the woefully generic
name the Blues Band.
All the while, Popper gradually realized that he was surpassing
his influences on the harmonica. He discussed this matter of
destiny with Chris Barron, a high-school chum who was laying the
groundwork for his own career in music. "One day he asked,
'John, why us?'" says Popper. "This was before
anything. We just knew we were really good. We knew we were
fresh. And so I told him, 'I think it has something to do with
the hard times we've had, being lonely and having a real tough
time as a kid.'"
Chan Kinchla was a Princeton High rock jock who played football
and lacrosse but preferred to skip class and isolate himself in a
rehearsal room, practicing guitar. After repeatedly bumping into
Popper, Kinchla was invited to join the Blues Band in 1985. Their
minds were blown and commitment sealed one afternoon after a
marathon three-hour rehearsal that forever became enshrined as
the "black-cat jam" because a black cat wandered up
afterward and hung out "like it was going 'whoa' with
is," says Popper. A superstition was born: "Whenever we
have trouble, a big event, a crisis of faith or some milestone,
there is a black cat there," Popper says. "This is
Bobby Sheehan, an avowed Deadhead and fellow Princeton High
classmate, was the last to join, in '87. One by one, the group
members moved to Manhattan as they graduated. Popper enrolled in
the fledgling jazz program at the New School, as did Hill and
Sheehan. Their lineup set, the foursome began playing New York
clubs under a new name, Blues Traveler. The traveler part came
from a line in Ghostbusters.
Eventually, they got too busy to make classes, but an invaluable
lesson rubbed off as a result of the New School program and its
cofounder and director, Arnie Lawrence: "The thing we
learned from Arnie was that you have to play what you know,"
says Popper. "You've gotta play honestly. If you play what
you know, it will always be original, and it will be worth
In return, this passel of green but dedicated rock kids from the
white-bread suburbs left their mark on the jazz program.
"They were the least experienced but the most open and the
most full-hearted students, and they had the best attitude,"
Lawrence boasts of his charges. "A lot of the jazz musicians
may have had a little snobbery at first, but they learned a lot
from Popper and Brendan and Bobby."
Popper can clearly recall the moment last fall when his little
Honda smashed into a turning car at 70 mph on a rural road
outside Bogalusa, Louisiana. "I can remember thinking, 'This
is going to be one of those accidents I've heard about.' A long
screech and bam! boom!" He wound up face down in
the gravel, writhing in agony, screaming profanities, shattered
leg twisted like a pretzel, broken arm hanging limply. "In
my brain I'm thinking, 'I'm in hell,'" says Popper.
"'This is the worst thing that could happen to a person, to
be alive and halfway broken in agony.'"
Meanwhile, the other Blues Travelers were nearby, at the Studio
in the Country, laying down tracks for "Manhattan
Bridge" - an instrumental from the new album - and wondering
why their band mate was so late. "We got a call from the
sheriff's department saying, 'Your boy's not going to be in
today,'" says Hill. Down at the hospital the band members
weakly offered reassurance while looking, according to Popper, as
if they were going to throw up. Still, in the back of their minds
"we sort of had the feeling it was going to be all right
because we had good karma," says Hill. "Our whole
business is helping people through their lives to enjoy music, so
we figured it was gonna go all right."
And things have, as hoped, gone pretty well. Popper has tried to
be a model patient, dutifully keeping a little black box that
acts as an electronic nerve stimulator pressed to his leg, aiding
in the healing process. A month's delay in recording allowed them
to sort out some sound problems and improve on the takes, making
for a better record. All fourteen songs were written before the
accident; "Go Outside and Drive," in an eerie bit of
premonition, finds Popper chanting, "Things could still turn
out alright/As long as I'm not dead." Says Popper:
"It's amazing how many songs pertain to somebody who's been
in an accident. I find myself quoting the second side quite a
After playing an estimated 800 shows in three years, the band was
forced to take time off and recharge, but the delay nearly drove
the members stir-crazy. "We were off the road for eight
months, doing all this personal 'me' shit in New York," says
guitarist Kinchla. "I was like 'Enough of this introspection
and "time for things I've always wanted to do."'
Touring nonstop is what I want to do!"
Blues Traveler is helping spark a resurgence of interest in
genuine, unadulterated live music, where no two concerts turn out
the same. Popper feels passionately that after all the synthetic,
video-conveyed music of the Eighties, the world is returning to
the more organic, participatory spirit of the Sixties. "Kids
are bored, and they wanna go out and party," he says.
"Live music is dangerous music. People get in trouble and
get killed to that kind of music. They take too many drugs and
die to that kind of music. They get their hearts broken to that
kind of music. Miles Davis called it 'social music.'
"Anybody who points a finger at us and calls it retro, why
stop at the Sixties?" he continues. "Is it 'cause we're
white kids? The music we're trying to play is what those Sixties
guys were trying to rip off from black people in the Fifties,
when blues was the big thing. They're ripping off other people
they heard who didn't make it out of Chicago, who were ripping it
off from New Orleans, where they were just trying to make some
money playing in whorehouses. So you could say we're bringing
that whorehouse music back again...but I don't see any goddamn
What you will find on a Blues Traveler tour is an embryonic and
mobile following much like the Grateful Dead have cultivated over
the years. Van loads of fans follow the band from gig to gig.
That suits bassist Sheehan just fine, because he feels Blues
Traveler might well have the same kind of staying power as the
Dead. "Ten years from now Blues Traveler will definitely
still be around," he says. "That's the kind of band we
Still to come is the second annual HORDE tour, which sets in
Denver on July 2nd. This year's lineup will, in addition to Blues
Traveler, include Widespread Panic, Col. Bruce Hampton and the
Aquarium Rescue Unit, Big Heat Todd and the Monsters, as well as
various other acts who will join the tour on a regional basis.
In the meantime, Blues Traveler is working the road with a
renewed sense of mission, happily attracting a legion of fans who
are not necessarily cut from the same cloth. "The best thing
I ever saw was at a gig we played in Hartford," Popper says.
"Right in front of me was this homeboy, baseball hat turned
sideways, and he's popping and doing stuff to our music. Next to
him there's this flower-in-her-hair Deadhead mama, whirling and
doing all that stuff. They've both got their cool face on - she's
ecstatic, seeing God, and he's all fresh and down. And they bump
into each other, stop when they see each other's faces and say,
'Oh, excuse me, I'm sorry,' then go back to what they were
"And I was like 'Damnit, this is transcultural.'"