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John Popper's voice and his harmonica solos burn through the air. Although he's a rock star, Popper is actually a soul singer in the most basic sense -- an artist who drinks liberally from the blues well.
After hearing the singer-musician once, you certainly don't forget him. And he can't lose with the support of his energetic band. But as Blues Traveler's frontman, Popper's talents haven't always been appreciated.
"Yeah, some people said I tried to rip off Cat Stevens and Stevie Wonder," says the Cleveland-born, New Jersey-raised artist, who's calling from a tour stop in upstate New York. "Oh, well. I've always admired those guys. But for me, the singing is very personal. You know, I still can't sing in front of my parents and my siblings. If I make eye contact with them in the front row of a show, I'm screwed."
On tour, the rootsy rock band jams some of its classics -- such as the 1994 breakout hit "Run-around" -- and material from Truth Be Told, the group's new album, which hits stores Tuesday.
Recorded in two months in Santa Barbara, Calif., the new record flows with introspective, sometimes irreverent stories that delve into relationships. The musicianship throughout is tighter than a pickle jar lid, more focused than on previous efforts. Standout cuts include the Al Green-flavored "Eventually (I'll Come Around)" and the confessional "Sweet & Broken."
"You always think the new record is your best," says Popper, 36. "But with this record, we really utilized the new member (bassist Tad Kinchla, the brother of guitarist Chan Kinchla). Don Gehman, our producer, was willing to let us be ourselves. He took each of us as a natural resource."
The atmosphere in the studio was relaxed and inspired. That vibe resonates on the album's 12 tracks.
"We're great live players," Popper says. "Recording in the studio is always a paring-down for us. There was really no preproduction time. If we were working on something, and it felt right in the studio, we just recorded it right there."
Blues Traveler is one of the hardest-working rock bands out there. At the peak of their career in the early '90s, the guys played more than 800 gigs in three years. The group started in New Jersey in '83 as a blues cover band. High school chums Popper and drummer Brendan Hill teamed up initially. But after a few years, the duo became a quartet with guitarist Chan Kinchla and bassist Bobby Sheehan.
The band moved to New York City and played the club circuit. It was Popper's fiery, deft harmonica playing that distinguished the group. His range and power recalled the best of the Delta blues, which, of course, influenced Popper's style.
Eventually, the band folded more hard rock elements into their hippie blues stew. And by 1990, Blues Traveler landed a deal with A&M Records.
Bringing the do-it-any-way-you-want-it jam aesthetic back to rock, the band launched H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere), a collective of like-minded rock units such as Phish, Spin Doctors and Widespread Panic.
Over the years, H.O.R.D.E. has splintered as each band slightly altered its sound, achieving multiplatinum sales in the process. But Blues Traveler has basically maintained the same freewheeling, blues-baked energy -- despite some hardships.
Success and partying
Work and play often blurred on the road as the group's success ascended. Its biggest album, 1994's four, sold more than 6 million copies, and Blues Traveler won a Grammy for "Run-around."
Popper often partied with large amounts of food and alcohol, which eventually took its toll. His weight ballooned to more than 400 pounds. And in 1999, he had to undergo emergency angioplasty. The next year [sic], friend and bassist Bobby Sheehan was found dead in his New Orleans apartment.
On Truth Be Told, Blues Traveler refocuses on what matters the most: honest music. There's a strong we-survived-it feel in the playing and the singing.
Each member, especially Popper, has found a more stable place in his life. It comes with getting older, Popper says.
"On the new record, we're all able to just breathe a little bit," he says. "Up until four, I was always like, `Look at what I can do.' Now, I'm just relaxed. Physically, I'm much better than before. I do feel like I'm not as winded."
He also credits his two-year relationship with his girlfriend to his change in attitude.
"I guess I'm enjoying the world more. Before, I lived so much in my head. As for the music, I feel as long as we stay relevant and play real music, that's what's gonna keep me going with Blues Traveler. Hey, man, it's always about real music, you know?"
And that's the truth.