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Blues Traveler
by Jeremy M. Helfgot
Music Connection Magazine, National
Aug 4th, 1997

Some people believe that the third time's the charm. Fortunately, not everyone agrees.

In the case of A&M Records artists Blues Traveler, it's a good thing that the label doesn't subscribe to the third time philosophy, because, for this act, it took four tries to reach the charmer. And it's fortunate for musical posterity that the powers that be at A&M had the patience and the foresight to wait that long.

Otherwise, the group's 1993 Save His Soul album might have been the last we ever heard from singer/harmonica maestro John Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla, bassist Bob Sheehan and drummer Brendan Hill. And outstanding radio hits like "Run-Around," "Hook" and "The Mountains Win Again" might never have reached the ears of the radio programmers who played them almost incessantly, the fans who called and requested them in droves, and the record buyers, who made their fourth album, 1994's aptly titled four - the source of the aforementioned cuts - a six-times platinum hit.

And now they're out to follow it up...

But there's no pressure to follow up [four]," says frontman Popper, with a laugh, about the group's latest studio effort, Straight On Till Morning, which was released in the US on July 1st. "I think there could have been all kinds of pressure, but I also think we're pretty smart, in that we're looking at this new record as a separate project, and not as something that has to compete with our past work, or, for that matter, be better than it," the harpist extraordinaire explains.

In fact, however, the preparations for Straight On Till Morning were far more elaborate than any past Blues Traveler project, with the band spending a month writing and rehearsing in Seattle, followed by five more weeks of collaboration in upstate New York and a month of pre-production, before the album was finally recorded and mixed in the Big Apple.

On first listen, longtime fans will likely be pleased with the rootsy feel of the material, which moves away, somewhat, from the poppier - no pun intended - tunes that pervaded four. In fact, the album's first cut, "Carolina Blues" - the record's first single - has a definite Southern Rock tinge to it. "Yeah, I guess it does have a Southern Rock feel," Popper says when asked about the song, as though he's just realized it for the first time, in a moment typical of his tongue-in-cheek playful nature. A quick follow-up question, pointing out that it seems an unlikely choice for a first single, sparks the singer to note that they "wanted to get away from just the more poppy tunes at radio."

In fact, Popper is very adamant about the fact that the music on Straight On Till Morning is not about radio play or album sales - "though they're nice for financial security," he admits - but rather about continuing to explore the sound they began playing together in high school in Princeton, New Jersey. For this band, he says, it's not a matter of writing to please the fans, but a matter of writing to please themselves, and then allowing whoever can relate to what they have to express, to jump on the bandwagon.

Fortunately, for band and label alike, the response to the new work has already been incredibly positive, with the album making its debut at #11 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart, as "Carolina Blues" continues to rack up airplay at stations across the country, in various formats, and on music television.

"I just saw MTV, and it's finally on there," Popper notes of the single and video. "We can't believe the reaction we're getting," he adds, reiterating the fact that this album was not created with any kind of commercial master plan in mind.

"I think that's part of being an artist: finding your audience," he continues. "I think that the audience that was with us before four will continue to stay with us. And I think that we certainly gained some fans with that album. Now, the challence is to continue to grow."

To that end, the diversity of the material on Straight On Till Morning can stand in evidence. Aside from the Southern tones of "Carolina Blues," the material on the album jumps from the upbeat, dancy romp that is "Felicia" to more mainstream cuts like "Justify the Thrill," and from the taunting, catchy hooks of "Canadian Rose" to the slower, gentler melodies of "Most Precarious" and "Yours," with its almost a cappella opening, and winding up with the genuine Southern-fried blues piece "Make My Way."

"We try to keep all of our possibilities open, because our records are getting better," the frontman says of the group's songwriting efforts. "I'm not sure if it's because we've been playing longer, though playing live has definitely helped us immensely as a band and as musicians."

And then, in an instant, the whole focus of the conversation changes, as if some wondrous new revelation has just been realized. When it comes to Blues Traveler, the very mention of the term "live" opens eyes and brings up ears, like those of a startled cat or dog. Make no mistake about it: this is a live show-oriented band, and Popper makes it perfectly clear that playing live has always been, remains, and will always be the focus.

"Studio time is a pain," he groans, mumbling something under his breath. "We live to play live, and that's what has always kept us going. When I'm onstage, I get completely lost in what I'm doing, like I'm in a trance. That's really what each performance is like. That's why we love playing live."

After hearing that, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that Popper doesn't acknowledge the group's 1996 double-disc live album set, Live from the Fall, as his favorite Blues Traveler recording.

"That album is not my favorite thing," he states. "Actually playing live will always be my favorite thing. In fact, I hear the live album and I just wanna go play again."

As a point of history, it was Popper's undying desire to get out and play which led to the formation of one of the hottest annual festival tours to travel the States. In 1992, when Blues Traveler were unable to secure an opening spot on any of the summer's major tours, Popper took matters into his own hands, and decided to create a tour of his own; and thus the H.O.R.D.E. Festival - an acronym for "Horizons Of Rock Developing Everywhere" - was born, and has since played host to the likes of the Black Crowes, Ziggy Marley, the Dave Matthews Band, Joan Osborne and dozens of others. And of course, Blues Traveler as well.

This year, however, the group is noticeably absent from the tour's bill, which still features a potent lineup, including headliner Neil Young & Crazy Horse, a slew of recent Music Connection cover artists - Toad the Wet Sprocket, Big Head Todd & The Monsters, and Ben Folds Five - veterans like Primus and such newcomers as Squirrel Nut Zippers, Morphine and Ozomatli. Unfortunately, Blues Traveler's summer schedule, which includes extensive time in Europe in preparation for the new album's overseas release, has precluded them from playing the tour, for the first time in its five-year history.

"Ooooohhhh, we're gonna miss that," Popper says painfully, when this year's H.O.R.D.E. is mentioned, "because it really is a great experience. But we just couldn't do it with our schedule this year. This summer's going to be Europe," he laughs, "which is exciting for us. And hopefully we'll do the H.O.R.D.E. tour again, next year."

Of course, playing live is not the only item on Popper's list of favorite things. One would be remiss in not quickly stopping to ask him how the harmonica fits into the scheme of his most treasured items.

"I am a Samurai, and it is my blade," he replies boldly, when asked about his harp, which, he says, is his best friend, his source of expression, and his escape from the rigors of daily life. "That's how I see it," is his only addition to that statement, in a matter-of-fact tone reminiscent of a far more sophisticated Forrest Gump quipping, "That's all I have to say about that."

Clearly, it's a challenge for Popper to reduce the importance of the instrument to mere words. Though, when he's reminded of a quote from an interview he gave around the time of four's success, in which he mentioned something to the effect that to be successful, you need to be adequate at a number of things, but you really need to excel at something that is unique to your situation, he laughs and responds, "I agree with myself!"

"Actually," he adds, "you can work really hard at things and try hard to excel at them, but when you find something that is your true passion, you know it and it captures you from that point on. And that was the case with me and the harmonica."

With that in mind, it comes as a bit of a shock when Popper cites his major musical influence as Jimi Hendrix, and not a fellow harpist. But, he does note, there are more than a few musicians who he used to regard as "more than human," before attaining his own famed status. In fact, he's still prone to returning to the "fan state" when faced with the right circumstances.

"I recently did a collaboration with Dolly Parton," he reflects, "and it was an overwhelming experience, to be there with one of my idols. I felt giddy and excited, just like a fan."

But with his ascension to fame, Popper is not impervious to the effects of public scrutiny, which can often be exceptionally distressful to a songwriter, whose words and expressions quickly become fair game for anyone's - and everyone's - interpretation. Still, in his usual "stoic" manner, he manages to detach himself from the inevitable "insights" of those around him, and he claims to have even grown to appreciate them on some levels.

"I bitterly, stoically try not to react, because it's an individual issue, and people will interpret our songs to their own meanings," he says. "I try not to imply what my songs are about, because other people might have insights that I don't have. If I write a song that means something to me in my life, or about something that's happened to me, or to somebody else, and somebody else hears that song while their life is going on, and they find their own connection to it, who am I to say that they're wrong?"

After a moment of coaxing, however, Popper does confess that he occasionally can't fight the urge to correct someone who's misinterpreting his work: "I do get that feeling," he admits, "but I try to keep it to myself." Discretion is the better part of valor.

As for the future it appears to be as bright as the second star to the right, and Straight On Till Morning is far from the last we'll hear from the foursome.

"I have the next album almost done," he boasts - in concept, anyway, as he explains that he's been working on putting together a thematic collection - "a rock opera, for lack of a better word, though it's not really an opera," he goes on to say. "It's not even a rock operetta; it's more of a rock vignette. It's a challenge."

Support from A&M, however, is not likely to be a challenge at all, especially with the current album's early success, before the grouop has even launched into its next headlining tour, which will come to L.A.'s Greek Theatre on August 27th.

"I feel so lucky!" Popper states emphatically, with regard to the label. "They've given us the freedom to do what we have wanted to do. And we've been lucky - they've really supported us and given us room to grow."

"When we signed to A&M, the money we got was kind of small, but that allowed us more flexibility, because we were less of an investment for them. It gave us more control over what we were doing and where we wanted to go."

For now, Popper says, "I'm just trying to do the best work I can, and trying to enjoy my extremes." And what extremes are those? "There's real loneliness," he relates, "punctuated by bold moments. It's hard when nothing's going on, and it's hard when everything's going on. I spend a lot of time alone. When I'm off, I hang around my house and I play with my dog."

"I mean, wouldn't it be bizarre, in a way, if I said that when I'm off, I go back to my wife and kids, and I have this separate life going on? You know that's not what I do. I'm on the road most of my time, and I think it would be hard to live like that."

Of course, Popper's sentiments haven't stopped the band's happily married drummer. Nor has it gotten in the way of guitarist Kinchla's recent tying of the knot. And, despite his previous declaration, the singer's reflections on the marriage of the axeman are all positive: "Yeah, I think it's gonna be great," he says. "I think it's just going to extend our family."

In conclusion, the prolific Popper is faced with the challenge of summing his complete experience in Blues Traveler with one word. "That's hard," he growls, before pausing for a moment. "But I think I can do it: Surreal."