"Je n'ai pas de pantalons!" exclaims John Popper, taking his
place at center stage. "Sorry. That's all the French I know."
Loosely translated, the phrase means "I'm not wearing pants!"
and may seem unorthodox as a greeting unless you're actor Hugh Grant. But
that's how the wry, hulking singer says hello to the throng of 10,000 or
so awaiting his performance with Blues Traveler at Parc Therrien in
Verdun, Quebec, just outside of Montreal.
The occasion is Another Roadside Attraction, a H.O.R.D.E.-like
Hoserpalooza hosted by north-of-the-border superstars the Tragically Hip
that will play in eight cities (of which this is the seventh) across the
vast Canadian landscape in a scant 11 days. The emphasis of the festival
is squarely on Canuck rock, with such featured acts as Spirit of the West,
the Rheostatics, Eric's Trip and the Inbreds. Presumably, Blues Traveler,
Matthew Sweet, and Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers were invited along
to lend the lineup a hint of international flavor.
It's a gorgeous day, just warm and sunny enough to warrant the crowd's
exposure of pallid Quebecois flesh. But when Blues Traveler kicks off its
late-afternoon performance with "Alone," a dolorous plaint from
the band's self-titled debut, the wind kicks up and the sky darkens. As
the song stretches out into a 15-minute epic, the afternoon's only rain
begins to fall, as if the band's hurricane-force jam had somehow conjured
it. But the weather backs off for the remainder of the 70-minute set,
which, due to the band's inglorious placement of fifth on the bill, is a
severely truncated version of its marathon-length stateside shows.
A sizable portion of the crowd, which was lounging on blankets and
browsing through the trinkets and tie-dye of the Hip-E village at the rear
of the venue, surges forward and gamely moshes to the music, creating an
odd juxtaposition of music and choreography as Popper inserts a chorus of
Kenny Rogers' unhip anthem "The Gambler" into a double-time take
of "Optimistic Thought." The fierce, accusatory "Love &
Greed" suits the body surfers better, as does the hard-charging
"Mulling It Over." But they are just as easily soothed by the
band's heartfelt cover of John Lennon's "Imagine," to which many
sing along and wave peace signs at the stage. For the finale, "Sweet
Talking Hippie," Popper performs the sort of lightning-fast harmonica
runs that have become his trademark, engaging guitarist Chan Kinchla in a
fierce cutting contest.
Conspicuous in its absence from the set is "Run-Around," the
runaway hit that earlier in the week had entered the Top 10 of the
Billboard Hot 100, pushing four, the band's
matter-of-factly titled platinum-plus fourth album, which had preceded the
single into the Top 10, even higher. "This is the first time we
haven't played it in three or four months," Popper says later,
lounging on one of the couches in the surprisingly roomy forward cabin of
the band's touring bus.
"We found we were getting too caught up in it and it was starting to
affect our lives," adds Kinchla, who's sitting opposite. "It
felt so good not to play it, we're probably not going to play it a lot
"It's like, we're in Montreal, I don't know who the f--- knows who we
are here," Popper says. "And dammit, we're going to be playing
that single for the rest of our natural lives."
Back in the States, if anyone still doesn't know Blues Traveler,
enlightenment is only the flick of a switch away. "Run-Around"
is an across-the-board smash on radio formats ranging from modern rock to
album rock to adult contemporary. And the video - which coyly makes an
issue of the band members' decidedly un-videogenic visages by presenting a
poser band lip-syncing the lyrics while the real band plays behind the
stage curtain, Wizard of Oz-style - is a staple on MTV and VH1. "We
were a band that didn't fit into any category," Kinchla says, shaking
his head. "Now we're the band that fits into every
Needless to say, it wasn't always thus. Blues Traveler's earliest
incarnation came in 1983, when Popper met drummer Brendan Hill in the
Princeton, New Jersey, high school band. Popper, who was born in Cleveland
and spent his preadolescent years in Stamford, Connecticut, was musically
inclined from an early age. "I was singing harmony in church when I
was three," he says. "I didn't think anything about it, but my
parents thought, wow, that's pretty cool. So they shoved a cello in my
hand when I was five, and I took piano when I was eight. Then there was
tuba in the fourth grade - I know what you're thinking, give the fat kid a
tuba - then guitar when I was 11, and saxophone and trumpet in high
school. The only thing that sucked was that I had teachers, and I had to
go through rudiments and learn stuff, and I didn't want to do that. With
the harmonica, there were no teachers, so I could play it just the way I
Early on, Popper was transfixed by the music of Jimi Hendrix, through whom
he worked his way backward to Paul Butterfield, Miles Davis, John Lee
Hooker, Little Walter and John Coltrane. Inspired by the ridiculous as
well as the sublime - at one point Popper aspired to be a comedian - he
and Hill took their fledgling act's name from the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd
film The Blues Brothers. They called it the Blues Band.
Kinchla started playing guitar at age six. After prevailing upon his
parents to buy him one, he rarely put it down, save for when he took up
sports, including football and lacross, which he played at Princeton High.
But a knee injury cut short his playing days, and besides, he preferred
whiling away the hours practicing music. Kinchla joined the Blues Band in
1985, and the musicians bonded one afternoon in a rehearsal session that
band mythology has come to term the "black-cat jam."
"It was one of our seminal early jams where we really improvised and
went unconscious," Kinchla says. "I don't know how long the jam
lasted, but we were sitting on a hill afterwards, and listening to that
tape just blew us away. And lo and behold, this black cat comes up and
sits with us while we're listening to the music. We just took it as an
Since then, Kinchla says, they have been visited by a black cat at
virtually every momentous juncture in their career. As inspired by the
omen as they are spooked by it, Kinchla had a black cat tattooed on his
arm, and Popper wears a ring in the shape of the cat's head. The symbol
also adorns the cover of four.
The band in its final form came together at last when bassist Bobby
Sheehan joined in 1987. Popper graduated from Princeton High and moved to
New York City to enroll in the music program at the New School for Social
Research. Eventually, so did Hill and Sheehan. Kinchla, who is mostly
self-taught, came along to attend New York University and to gig at night
with the group under its new moniker, Blues Traveler. "Once we
started making plans to move to New York, we realized the name wouldn't
really cut it, 'cause there's hundreds and hundreds of them," Kinchla
says. "So we were thinking that when the four of us played together,
we sort of created this fifth entity, like somebody else was in the
"And Blues Entity sounded stupid," Popper says. "I was
watching Ghostbusters, and they had Gozer the Traveler. At one
point it says [he adopts a demonic voice], 'The Traveler has come.' So we
put that together with Blues and got Blues Traveler. In a sense, Dan
Aykroyd is responsible for both parts of our name."
With the band playing up to seven gigs a week in Greenwich Village bars
and on the East Side, Popper, Hill and Sheehan found it increasingly
difficult to attend their classes at the New School, so they dropped out.
But the experience left a profound impression on them nonetheless.
"It was where we learned about playing our music honestly and playing
what we know," says Popper, who cites Arnie Lawrence, the music
program's director and cofounder, as one of his primary gurus. "The
thing about the New School at that time was that you could play with these
incredible musicians. These huge jazz guys would come in and play with
you. It was hands-on, no real requirements, an easy schedule. Now it's
more like a real school and it's harder to bust out of there."
The quartet dedicated itself to the club and college circuits, developing
a fanatical following and, eventually, a good-natured rivalry with the
like-minded jam band Spin Doctors - an ironic twist, considering that the
band's frontman, Chris Barron, was one of Popper's best high-school
friends and that Popper was responsible for getting him the gig.
"Chris and I used to sit around and write songs together,"
Popper says. "We both graduated in '86, and when the guys came to New
York in '87, Chris was back in Princeton, living above the music store
seducing young girls. They'd come to his window, and he would croon to
them from his window with his guitar. That is a true story.
"We needed a fourth for our apartment, 'cause Brendan moved in with
his girlfriend, and we thought Chris was pretty cool, so we talked him
into coming to New York. That first year I was here I had formed a band
with Brendan and [Spin Doctors guitarist] Eric Schenkman called the
Trucking Company. When the rest of Blues Traveler arrived in town, there
was this dilemma: What if I had two gigs on the same night? It never
happened, but I worried about it, and I thought, let's get Chris into the
band and I can take a night off if I want to. Before I knew it, I wasn't
even in the Trucking Company anymore, and now it was called the Spin
Soon enough, both bands had fans camping outside clubs to get into their
shows and following them from gig to gig. Blues Traveler signed with Bill
Graham Management in 1989, after the legendary rock impresario wrote them
a letter saying his son, David, a Columbia University student who had seen
them in New York, would like to manage them. "Bill said, could we
please wait until he could come and see us in September," Popper
recalls. "And when Bill Graham asked us to wait, you do. The first
gig he got us was opening for the Neville Brothers at the Palladium - a
whole different level than we were used to. The second gig was in front of
500,000 people at the Housing Now rally in Washington, D.C. You know, we
hadn't played a club bigger than maybe a thousand people, and now we're in
front of half a million. He knew how to impress us."
"Bill was a great teacher," Kinchla adds. "He taught us
that the most important aspect of anything is the people that come and see
you and the people that buy your records. If you're not making them happy,
you've missed the point."
The band signed with A&M and released its debut in 1990 and Travelers
& Thieves in 1991. Both sold respectably, but the group's main
draw was still its live shows, which earned Blues Traveler comparisons to
the Grateful Dead, albeit more for the slightly stoned, hippie vibe of the
audience and the band's tendency to take off on extended jams than for any
specific similarity of sound or sensibility.
Say what you will about the relative merits of the music made by the
members of Blues Traveler and their jam-band brethren such as Spin
Doctors, Phish, and Widespread Panic, among others, but the fact is that
each of the bands in their own way helped renew interest in live music,
which had all but disappeared in the videocentric '80s. "Live is
where we live," Popper deadpans. "Both of those words have the
letters L-I-V-E in them."
Perhaps Blues Traveler's most significant contribution to the music world
thus far has been the annual H.O.R.D.E. tour, which recently wrapped up
its fourth go-round, and which the band has helped since 1992. (The name
is an acronym for the ungainly construction Horizons of Rock Developing
Everywhere.) But Popper says the original idea for the festival was a
collaborative effort between all of the acts involved that first year.
"Us, Phish, Widespread Panic, Spin Doctors, and Col. Bruce Hampton
& the Aquarium Rescue Unit - we were all bands that lived on our live
ticket sales. And every summer it was a pain in the ass to have to play
indoors, but the only outdoor sheds held like 15,000 people. So the idea
was obvious: to play a festival together and fill these sheds and make a
big noise playing outdoors. The reason we've been left as caretakers was
that each of these bands knew us, and I was the one who actually called
the meeting. That's how I became the poster child of H.O.R.D.E."
Not lost on Popper & Co. was the early success of Perry Farrell's
Lollapalooza tour, which preceded H.O.R.D.E. by a year. "I think we
definitely stole from him as much as we could," Popper admits.
"But I don't think Perry Farrell invented the idea. Bill Graham said
he invented it with Live Aid, but the truth of the matter is, it's older
"The difference between us and Lollapalooza is that Lollapalooza is trying
to expose people to bands they wouldn't normally hear," Popper
continues. "Their philosophy is to turn a skinhead on to rap and a
rapper on to hardcore. I think it's a very brave thing to do. But we're
convinced there's a fan out there who likes all kinds of music - who likes
Led Zeppelin, who likes James Brown, R.E.M., P.I.L., John Coltrane, and
N.W.A. That fan is one who likes live music, and that's who we're aiming
at. The people we've got on this year's show - from Morphine to Taj Mahal,
Sheryl Crow, Dionne Farris, Dave Matthews, the Black Crowes, Ziggy Marley
- we've got just every kind of live band. That's the only combining
factor. It's a good show to see."
Blues Traveler's commitment to the road and to the fans who come to see
them has been tested on occasion, but never more than in 1992, when, in
the middle of the sessions for the band's third album, Save His
Soul, Popper crashed his motorcycle into a turning car while doing 70
miles an hour. The accident left him with a broken arm, leg, and hip, and
landed him in a wheelchair for nearly two years. He still walks with a
cane, though by now it's become as much an affectation as a necessity.
"My latest trick is that I can walk up stairs again," he says.
"I used to have to take a step then bring my bad leg up. Now I can
walk right up. It's still a little weak, but getting stronger every
If such an accident can be said to have a positive side, it's that it
strengthened the band's commitment to each other and bolstered Popper's
inner resolve as well. "It hurt so much," he says. "It hurt
beyond pain you can imagine. You don't know how much suffering you are
capable of until something like this happens. Every time I thought I was
at the end of my rope - it's not like you get this golden lifeline and
something makes you feel better - a ton more shit gets dumped on you and
what you had before suddenly doesn't seem so bad.
"Going through this helped me find out about God," he says
quietly. "I mean, I always have kind of known about God, but with
something like this, you see the extent you can depend on God.
"We're not born-again Christians or anything," he adds with some
bluster. "I kind of always thought they were pussies."
Still, the spiritual connection he made jives well with his long-standing
belief that music is essentially a spiritual medium. "It's a form of
sorcery," he says. "I think it's actual magic that is tangible
and can affect people. But people misunderstand it. They feel like they
have some kinds of advantage by not partaking of it: 'Oh, that won't work
on me.' But the whole point of art is to let it sweep over you and take
you somewhere. It's a ride. There are some control freaks out there who
say, 'It's not magic.' But it is if you believe in it."
If you're a member of Blues Traveler, you have to believe, because 1995
has been a magic year for the band. With "Run-Around" high on
the charts and "Hook" prepared to follow, the band has dates
scheduled through the end of the year and is recording them for a live
album that is likely to be released next year. Beyond that, the band
members are looking forward to doing something they've never really done
before, save during Popper's injury: take a vacation.
"With the success of this record, we've kind of reached a
milestone," Kinchla says. "We've been touring hard for the past
two-and-a-half years, ever since John's leg has healed to a point where we
could do it. By the end of this year, we'll have played in all 50 states,
and we have a hit record. It's time to end this phase and get on with
"Also, there's the onset of our 30s," Popper says. "I'm 28,
approaching 30, and you can't continue a pace like this forever. You have
to start planning how to do this in a way that's more comfortable, and you
also want to have time to build a life, maybe meet somebody and get
It's ironic that the only thing besides broken bones that can knock Blues
Traveler off the road is success. But it's hard to deny the band members
their higher aspirations. Or their lower ones, for that matter. Take
Popper's for instance. "I think I'll slim down," he says flatly.
"Maybe I'll play some tennis."