When one thinks of mainstream rock music in the 1990’s, one generally thinks of the grunge rock movement started early in the decade by bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains… not blues-rock. But every so often, a great blues-rock band would suddenly burst forth on the radio waves. On September 13, 1994, Blues Traveler gave birth to a stunning new record. It was called, simply enough Four due to the fact that it was the band’s fourth studio album. This meant that Blues Traveler had already been around for awhile, but to that point they had not achieved major mainstream success.
All that was about to change.
In some ways, the lead track and lead single from the album, “Run-Around,” is deceptively simple in the beginning. The whole song is based on four chords – G major, C major, A minor, and D major. It’s in common four time. Straightforward enough. The song starts out with a slide down the fret of the bass guitar and we’re off the races. But after two run-throughs of the chord progression, something crazy happens. A short harmonica solo. But not just any harmonica solo. This harmonica solo has the clearest, cleanest harmonica tone you’ll ever hear. Further, it’s melodically and rhythmically perfect. Any change in time or pitch would destroy it. But that didn’t happen, and the sound is divine.
A much longer, extended solo takes place later in the track, and it’s the same phenomenon. And suddenly, you realize that you’re hearing harmonica virtuosity on another level. This is Bach playing an organ, Jimi Hendrix playing a guitar, Coltrane on a sax. Nobody plays blues harmonica like this, at least, nobody did before. Of course, Little Walter paved the way – nobody can deny him his legitimate place as the A-#1 most important blues harpist of all time.
But if you ask me, John Popper actually transcends anything that came before.
If you were at all conscious for any of 1995, when “Run-Around” was released as a single, you probably know what a smash success it was. On the radio. In a coffeehouse. On television. While you were using the restroom. The song was absolutely inescapable. And for good reason. The melody is sublime. The vocals are honey-sweet and riveting. But the harmonica… oh, the harmonica. I don’t recall what magazine I was reading, but I distinctly remember one major mag saying, “Wow, Blues Traveler actually made us enjoy the harmonica again.” How could you not? Bob Dylan’s harmonica playing, so often emulated in rock music, was anything but virtuosic and without a doubt an acquired taste. But this was harmonica for everyone. But more importantly, it was rich, extravagant, challenging, virtuosic, and really, really rocking.
Run-Around was a smash success. It reached number 4 on several different Billboard charts and hit #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. It won a Grammy award for “Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.” Maybe most importantly, it’s been covered by Alvin and the Chipmunks. But there’s far more to this album than “Run-Around.” It’s thriller from top to bottom, full of scorching guitar riffs, clever and heartfelt lyrics, and yes, lots and lots of harmonica soloing. Take “Stand” for instance. Stand is a beast of a jam, mashing up blues, funk, jazz, and rock into an impossibly tasty musical stew, highlighted by an incredible vocal scat solo from John Popper, not to mention another white hot blues harp turn. I won’t lie, the scat is awesome but occasionally makes me kind of laugh – it’s hilarious sounding but also really good.
Though John Popper is an immense talent, the whole band can really play. Chan Kinchla from Ontario, Canada, is a dynamic guitarist who is able to create mean riffs along with gripping solos. Drummer Brendan Hill is strong as well on the backbeat. Hill met John Popper while he was studying at Princeton and a musical friendship was born. Bassist Bobby Sheehan, despite his overwhelming bass talent, was tragically lost in 1999 to an overdose, but he is remembered by all fondly and we are grateful for his contributions to this exquisite band and especially this album.
I don’t think it’s really appropriate to list stand out tracks on this album because it really is consistently great, and has a diversity of moods and tones, ranging from harder rockers, to quieter piano ballads. “Crash Burn” is an upbeat blues-rocker with a standout “round robin” kind of jam where each instrumentalist takes a few bars and jams, with lots of shredding. Despite its brief 2:59 running, time, it’s awesome. On the other end of the spectrum is the acoustic guitar driven balled “Just Wait” with its soaring melody and it’s optimistic, lyrics of encouragement, Popper singing:
I know that now you feel no consolation /
But maybe if I told you and informed you out loud /
I say this without fear of hesitation /
I can honestly tell you that you make me proud.
Just Wait……….Just Wait………..Just Wait…….And It Will Come
Another classic track from the album is the second hit single, “Hook” – a strong with a damn strong hook, so appropriately titled. There’s so much to like about this song, especially the harmonica interlude and Popper’s high-octane “rap” vocals at the climax of the piece – making this tune also an epic karaoke sing-along. The A.V. Club has a nice piece on this particular song too, explaining why it’s an extremely witty piece of meta-commentary: you can read that piece by clicking here.
While the album’s third single, “The Mountains Win Again” didn’t garner much commercial success like the other two radio cuts, it features some fine vocal work by Popper and a guest guitar spot by Warren Haynes, which adds immediately to its amiable likeability. So give this album a spin, and then go rock out to the band live – where they really, truly shine the most – on the Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea cruise, which you can book here. Blues Traveler has been playing powerhouse shows for over two decades now, and this is bound to be no exception!
– Brian R.