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The Blues Traveler Rock & Roll Medicine Show
by Parke Puterbaugh
Rolling Stone, National
Jun 24th, 1993



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 gorgeous day."

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 Science."

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 truth."

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 saying."

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 bit."

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 hookers!"

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 are."

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 doing."

"And I was like 'Damnit, this is transcultural.'"