It has been 30 years since Princeton, New Jersey’s Blues Traveler surfaced as one of rock and roll’s premier jam bands. Merging blues, psychedelic, folk and southern rock, they attained significant commercial success with their Top 40 classic hits “Run-Around” and “Hook,” off the Grammy Award-winning album “Four,” as well as giving birth to the infamous “H.O.R.D.E. touring music festival.
Continuing to record and tour as Blues Traveler, a line up that features John Popper (vocals and harmonica), Chan Kinchla (guitar), Brendan Hill (drums), Tad Kinchla (bass) and Ben Wilson (keyboards), Popper is hitting the road to perform intimate duet shows with fellow band member Wilson.
“I’m taking a month to do this solo stuff, which I’ve been dying to get to for years,” says Popper, now 50, while on tour in Verona, New York. “Just me and keyboard player Ben Wilson. It’s taking Blues Traveler songs or original stuff of mine, and a few others maybe off the new Blues Traveler album where it’s just me with a keyboard and without any sort of a drumbeat. Sort of peel the songs apart and really get into it. There will be accompanying stories about the songs. It’s fun, powerful and very intimate. It’s something that I’m able to do with my voice.”
“The song that kind of triggered it was “Carolyn The Bloom Come In,” adds Popper. “I just get to play the keyboard. We do that in our Blues Traveler show and it’s off of our album “Suzie Cracks The Whip.” It really kind of got me into this idea. It’s a contrast from Blues Traveler because that band is so big with drums and a rhythm section, it gets really syncopated. It’s kind of nice to take the opposite approach.”
“As far as the challenges,” says Popper. “It’s a really small thing so you’re dealing with a crowd right in your face. I wouldn’t call it a challenge. This is what I’ve been chomping at the bit to do. These are the kind of challenges that you really want. Playing a small venue is fun and I sort of miss that. It gets me a little nostalgic for the days when we were coming up as Blues Traveler. I hope I can engage every night. I think I can. If the audience is into it that gets me into it and you can always find something new about that.”
Blues Traveler success came to a halt in the late ‘90s following the passing of original bassist Bobby Sheehan and Popper’s health struggles with obesity. Dropped by A&M Records in 2002, the band ultimately reemerged as more of an independent band working with smaller, less-known labels.
“I almost died as well,” recalls Popper. “I was 436 pounds. I got gastro bypass surgery and lost 180 pounds. I lost a whole human. I’m half the man I used to be. It really saved my life, literally. I think that’s the reason why we are continuing. We’re always battling something. I think over time everybody is dealing with something. You either deal with it or you don’t.”
Releasing 20 albums in their illustrious career, Blues Traveler has recorded a new album due for a January 2018 release in honor of their 30 years as a band.
“It’s done and it’s being mixed right now,” says Popper. “We’ve got 12 new tunes. We stored a lot of songs that we wanted to do, saving them for the right occasion. I’ve been saving some of these songs since 2012 and they were bottled up. Everybody in the band had bits and pieces of songs. It really clicked fast.”
“It was just us having a real sense of songs and making something that we would be proud of. It was very us,” adds Popper. “People are going to like what they hear and it fits a band that has been at it for 30 years. We struck a gusher. I want to say it’s the best album we’ve done in the last 10 years. I can’t wait until it’s out.”
Splitting time between his latest solo touring efforts and the impending Blues Traveler anniversary tour, Popper is looking forward to embracing vastly different creative opportunities.
“We have a Blues Traveler tour coming up in October and again in February, sort of two legs of the same tour,” says Popper. “We’re going to be doing that hard into next year.”
Popper, long recognized as one of rock and roll’s premier harmonica players, is quick to shed his rock star status, focusing instead on his desire to excel on his instrument and connect with fans.
“Separating the rock star side and the personal side is a sense of denial,” says Popper. “When people say I’m a rock star I say, ‘Really?’ I have trouble grasping that and I always have. I’m an artist that plays honest and true. I want a connection. I don’t really know any other way to be. If you get a chance to do something good for people, that’s really the goal.”