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John Popper

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John Popper, as any harmonica player (and many non-harmonica players) knows, is the lead singer, main songwriter, and harmonica player for Blues Traveler, an increasingly popular rock band whose inspirations include the Grateful Dead, and whose recent credits include opening for the Rolling Stones on that band's latest US tour. This review of Blues Traveler's latest release on A&M Records, "Straight on Till Morning," focuses on Popper's harmonica work on that recording. (In other words, if you're interested in a discussion of the CD's lyrics, you should look elsewhere.)

For those readers who are still with us, we can begin by noting that the harmonica work on Straight on Till Morning contains much that is familiar to Popper fans. Popper breaks little or no new ground on this record in terms of either the melodic content or the basic structure of his solos. Popper's playing, like that of many fast players on any instrument, is mostly based on patterns, i.e. set sequences of notes that are used and reused in a variety of contexts throughout his songs. Pattern-based playing certainly makes it much easier to think at high speeds (because the player can think in terms of patterns, rather than a note at a time), but if the player doesn't push him or herself to learn new patterns frequently the solos based on those patterns become predictable. This is especially so on the diatonic harmonica, Popper's preferred instrument, whose out-of-the-box setup includes only a single major diatonic scale. Non-scale tones are available on the diatonic harmonica via techniques that include bending and overblowing, of course, but it's not easy to hit the bends right on target when you're playing as fast as Popper, and in general his patterns tend to use the single scale that's built into the instrument most of the time, especially when he's playing his fastest runs. When he does use bends, it's usually to add emphasis to the big climax notes, or to imbue his lines with an almost Middle-Eastern quality; in other words, bending for Popper is more often a matter of tone and timbre than of pitch. In this sense he is very far removed from Howard Levy, the jazz diatonic harmonica master for whom Popper has expressed reverence in interviews.

I repeat: most of Popper's solos on this record are built from melodic material that will be very familiar to his fans. Even a novice listener will find that the material used in the solos becomes familiar over the course of the record. That said, Popper's instrumental technique is exceptionally good, especially in terms of his breathing (which is very fluid and quick) and his left hand, the latter being the key factor in moving the harmonica rapidly and precisely. (It's a pleasure to watch Popper on his television performances, where you can see his solid technique in action as well as hear it.) If there is a harmonica player on the planet who can play faster for longer with better control than Popper, I have yet to hear him or her. Popper has been attacked by a number of more tradtional players for his cascades of notes, in much the same terms (and for much the same reason) that saxophonist John Coltrane was attacked for his "sheets of sound" approach to soloing: it's "just scales," it's "soulless," etc., etc. Such criticism can be dismissed fairly easily, starting with the soullessness charge. Popper's solos are in fact effusively emotional, and the emotion is joy. Every aspect of Popper's musical output, from his lyrics to his song structures, reveals a person who is emotional, intelligent, and extremely talkative, a guy who has so much to say that he can barely squeeze it into the available space before the song ends. He is capable of using long tones as well as rapid runs effectively, and his sound on this record, with and without electronics, is very pleasing. Most of the negative reactions to Popper's work from more traditional players can be summed up as a) professional jealousy and b) the usual rejection accorded to any innovator who challenges the dominant paradigm in any field. (As noted previously, the charge that he repeats himself too often has some merit, though whether he repeats himself more frequently than the typical blues harper is questionable.)

Structurally speaking, Popper's solos, here and on his previous records, tend to progress from short riffs, played at moderate speed, to long, rapid runs that reverse direction frequently and traverse the entire length of the harmonica. To put it another way, the solos almost always build by getting louder, higher, and faster, not necessarily in that order; there's relatively little thematic development. This approach can be used to build a solo to an absolutely screaming climax, as Popper has done on a number of occasions, but is problematic when the climax is reached too quickly, as it is in "Carolina Blues," the first piece on the CD. In those cases Popper simply continues to play as high and fast as anyone on the planet can, but there's no corresponding increase in tension; the solo just hits its peak early and goes on until it stops. It happens that I was listening to Bruce Hornsby's "Scenes From the Southside" CD roughly about the same time I was checking out "Straight on Till Morning," and it's difficult not to notice how much stronger Hornsby's technique for solo construction is, how many more tools he brings to the task. Hornsby's 16-bar piano solo on "Look Out Any Window," for example, breaks out into clear 4-bar phrases that build dramatically, each phrase alternating single note and chorded passages, with a major jolt halfway through when his first melody reappears, voiced an octave higher in big two-handed chords. Whew. It's as calculated an effect as anything I've ever heard in a solo, and it's a level of construction that I don't see in Straight on Till Morning or in Popper's other recorded work.

So the melodic and structural content of this harmonica work is nothing new, for Popper anyway. (We'll just note again in passing that it remains a strikingly original contribution compared to what most other harmonica players are laying down these days.) What has changed? The most important news is that Popper has made big progress on this disk in the use of electronics to augment the sound of his instrument. He is obviously listening hard to guitar players these days; there are numerous points on the disk where it is nearly impossible at first to tell whether a line is being played by the harmonica or the guitar. Throughout the record, the variety of amplified and effected harmonica sounds adds a lot to the overall texture of the band's sound. We can add also that the band itself has never played better, though their playing never sounds as inspired as Popper's. The bass and drums in particular are very tight, and are recorded terrifically, with a sound that is clear and very punchy.

To summarize: Popper's harmonica style remains much the same, though he's added some new electric sounds to his toolkit. Overall it's not very new anymore -- though in 1991 it was about the newest thing on harmonica in at least 30 years -- but it's still very good stuff. The question now is whether Popper will continue to repeat the same material for another few albums, as he has done on the last few. He might easily wish to do so. This is rock and roll, after all. The Rolling Stones have been doing the same old thing for almost as long as Popper's been alive, and although nobody looks to recent Stones material for leadership and inspiration, they're still packing stadiums. In any case, Popper's awfully young and awfully good. If he chooses at this point to repeat himself, it's partly because he's already created a lot of stuff that's hard to beat. I will make a point of listening to Popper's next record, as I did this one, and I will listen to this one much more than once.

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