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Popper: Fitter, Happier

Blues Traveler leader, band more productive


Blues Traveler has had a makeover. It's both aural and visual. But it didn't happen in some trendy spa or get done by piling on lots of special effects in the studio.

The aural part can be heard on the latest Travelogue, Truth Be Told, released last August on the classic rock and metal label, Sanctuary Records. Popper's vocal style is quite different than on earlier Blues Traveler records. It's much more melodic -- funkier in places, and not wandering all over the map like the vocals on the hits like "Run-Around." There's more gritty rock, and less pop.

The overall sound is much less frenetic, with less harp gymnastics. Popper has said that in the past he was trying to show off what he could do with the harp on previous works. Here, it's more a part of the band than the focal point.

For the frontman, that focal point has shrunk considerably. After heart problems caused him to undergo an emergency angioplasty in '99, Popper downsized himself, to the tune of nearly 200 pounds. "Before, we'd come off stage after a hour-and-a-half set and he'd just collapse and need oxygen to survive," keyboardist Ben Wilson told the Ottowa Sun. "Now, he'd be sitting there wanting to be exhausted and a wreck, but he wasn't. He'd sometimes say, "Man, I feel like I'm ripping off the crowd 'cause I'm not exhausted."

Popper's health problems coupled with the band's emotional ones in recent years have taken a toll on the band and their music. Thirty-one-year-old founding member and bassist Bobby Sheehan died of a drug overdose the same year the Popper was undergoing his heart problems. "This whole experience of going to a funeral has made me angry at death," Popper told shortly after Sheehan's death. "I was looking at my Jimi Hendrix poster, thinking about Bob and people who died young. I used to think there was something so pure about what I thought was their bravery. But I think it was more fear than bravery. A friend of mine pointed out that life isn't pure. Your life is a convoluted, complicated thing to survive and live and face. That's courage."

That anger came out on the song "Pretty Angry," dedicated to Sheehan, from 2001's Bridge. "I would have brushed my world aside/ Rather than say goodbye," Popper wrote. "And I guess I'm still pretty angry/ And I don't want to be/ I don't know which was the bigger waste of time/Missing you or wishing, instead, it was me."

Popper got over his death-wish and injected new life into the band by bringing in guitarist Chan Kinchla's brother Tad on bass and keyboardist Wilson, who came from a Michigan jump blues band, Big Dave & the Ultrasonics.

Part of Popper's anger and sense of loss was due to the fact that Blues Traveler is a family with more longevity than most relationships. Popper, bassist Sheehan, guitarist Chan Kinchla and drummer Brendan Hill have been together for nearly 20 years. "I can remember when Chan didn't know how to tune his guitar," Popper told "We sucked big time way back when. I've got the tapes."

As their fans can attest, the band no longer sucks. For Popper and company, they knew they were going to make it as soon as they made enough money from music to pay the rent. "So much of our daily culture revolved around playing music that we were quite certain that we could last forever, and eventually the record deal and touring would come, because we figured out how to survive and play music. Once you do that, it's a waiting game," Popper told Jambands.

Fans who have been waiting for new music have a new live treat from the band. Live On The Rocks, from the band's performance at Red Rocks last July 4, has just been released as a companion piece to the DVD of the show released last year with Truth Be Told. The CD includes a performance of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry," featuring Ziggy Marley.

Refreshed and rejuvenated due to his weight loss and free from heart problems, the new Popper has a renewed interest in life and music alongside his musical family. "Blues Traveler...has made me really appreciate what great partners I've picked, because the momentum was never that hard," Popper said. "There's always somebody who knew exactly what to do. When you didn't know what to do, you could rest. It was like a great marriage."

Blues Traveler plays the Neighborhood Theatre Friday. Ricky Fante opens. Showtime is 7:30pm, tickets are $25.

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