John Popper, almost 20 years after his arrival on the scene, remains a terrifically innovative and technically accomplished harmonica player and a compelling singer and songwriter. To those considerable gifts he’s added an increasing mastery of electronics, and he created some sounds last night that took the harmonica pretty far from its roots. I was frankly amazed to hear what I took to be feedback played like a theramin, coming from the harmonica–new and different, for sure.
His talents aren’t matched by the rest of the band, all of whom are competent players at least, but none of whom seem capable of challenging Popper to reach greater heights. Indeed, the band sounded almost exactly the same as they sounded when I heard them perform in 1993 (with the exception of the keyboard player, whose textures on synthesizer, organ, and piano were always interesting and sometimes riveting). It would be very interesting to see what Popper could do with a band that had enough technique and verve to take him in some new directions.
The sound of the band on stage was simply awful. The venue is an auditorium, of course, and so a challenge for any soundman. But the kick drum was so loud and booming that the bass was almost inaudible, and the guitar mostly disappeared in the roar–there was barely any difference in the band’s sound when the guitarist left the stage to the keys, bass, drums, and harmonica. Popper’s harmonica and vocals cut through the bass-heavy roar pretty well, but nothing else did.
The auditorium was almost sold out for this show, and the crowd seemed to know the songs well. The band was tight, as you’d expect of a unit that’s been together for over a decade, and they played the material with plenty of enthusiasm, executing the frequent rhythm changes smoothly. One thing that was extremely odd to me was that Popper took half a dozen cigarette breaks on stage, during which he stood with his back to the audience, smoking. Surely someone has told him that cigarettes and harmonica weren’t meant to mix–let alone cigarettes and auditoriums? Oh well; rock and roll has never been about healthy habits, and cigarettes kill you more slowly than some of the alternatives.
Overall, a very interesting show. As per my comments above, it’s basically John Popper’s show–take him out of this band, and what you’re left with seems pretty ordinary. Popper’s harmonica work and songwriting remain as fresh now as they were in 1991, and maybe it’s not fair for me to expect that he take both to a new level. But that’s exactly what I’d like to hear–Blues Traveller, travelling to a new place.