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Rebel with a harmonica: Blues Traveler in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen correspondent
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times file
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ASPEN ” John Popper has two theories about how the harmonica became his instrument of choice.

The first: the harmonica was easy to play.

This theory holds water. The way the harmonica’s reeds are designed, simply blowing into the instrument results in a tuneful sound.

The second theory, though, is preferable, in that it hints at the psychological make-up of Popper. Learning cello, piano and guitar generally involves a teacher ” and Popper generally resisted teachers.

“There was no harmonica teacher, no one to tell me what I was doing wrong,” said the 41-year-old Popper by phone from a Marriott hotel in Denver, a few days before coming to Aspen for the traditional Fifth of July Belly Up appearance with Blues Traveler. “I think it was the fact that I couldn’t find a teacher.”

Besides being easy, the harmonica had other attractive attributes. Popper’s first career desire was to be a comedian, so when he noticed the harmonica being played by Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd on “Saturday Night Live” it struck a chord. When he discovered Hendrix and realized the only limits to the sounds that could be coaxed from an instrument were the player’s imagination, he was hooked.

“When I heard Hendrix ” he didn’t care what he was playing,” said Popper. “That to me was a green light. There was that freedom. I just tried to play what kinds of sounds he was making on his guitar.”

Changing things as much as the discovery of his instrument was finding a group of like-minded teenagers in the Princeton, N.J. of the mid-’80s. Guitarist Chan Kinchla, drummer Brendan Hill, bassist Bobby Sheehan and Popper started playing churches, BBQs and tiny local clubs, under the name Blues Traveler. With Popper taking on primary vocal duties, as well as songwriting responsibilities, the band relocated to New York City and became the center of an emerging downtown rock scene that included singer Joan Osborne and the Spin Doctors.

In addition to being frontman for Blues Traveler, Popper currently leads his John Popper Project. And when he performs, it is with all of himself, as he shouts, contorts and grimaces to wrench every sound out of his body.

It almost seems inevitable, given Popper’s tendency toward the extremes, that Blues Traveler would experience both highs and lows. The lowest point was the 1999 death of bassist Bobby Sheehan, Popper’s best friend, from a drug overdose. Sheehan wrote one of the band’s finest songs, “Mountains Win Again,” inspired by his visits to Aspen. The band flirted with the idea of breaking up after Sheehan’s death, but instead hired Tad Kinchla, Chan’s younger brother, to fill the bass slot, and further refreshed the lineup by adding a keyboardist, Ben Wilson. Not long after, Popper had gastric bypass surgery, which reduced his size from dangerously overweight to his present state of chubby.

Blues Traveler’s recording career has had a vast downturn over the last decade or so ” probably even bigger than the recordind industry as a whole. They have bounced from label to label without making much of a blip on the mainstream radar. Their last album was “Cover Yourself,” on which they drastically reworked old songs of theirs. “Run-Around” got an injection of brass parts; “Mountains Win Again” was reconceived as slow Delta blues.

As a touring band, however, Blues Traveler seems on a comfortable plateau. Their Fourth of July gig is a standing date at Red Rocks; most of this summer will be spent in amphitheaters, on a bill with Live and Collective Soul. In August, they will play the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago.

As for the recording studio, they are taking another approach, this time on the Verve label.

“North Hollywood Shootout,” recorded in Los Angeles, is due for release in August. As much as Popper respects his bandmates, this time he took the reins of the project, and set a tight writing and recording schedule which allowed little time for deliberation.

“You need an ego at the center of it,” he said. “So the guys trusted me and let me go with it. Everyone in the band is a virtuoso, so I wanted to be like Phil Jackson. We’ve done the overkill before.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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