Graded on a Curve:
Blues Traveler, Travelogue: Blues Traveler Classics

When I was a young boy my kindly old grandmother sat me down and said, “I’ve lived a long life, boy, and I have but one piece of advice to give you. Should you run across a man wearing a harmonica belt, stab him in the eye with a snail fork.”

Well lucky for Blues Traveler’s John Popper I don’t know a snail fork from a pitchfork. Because he wears a harmonica vest that holds more harmonicas than a Ruger handgun holds bullets, and the jam band’s front man isn’t afraid to use them—he’s a one-man well regulated harmonica militia.

Blues Traveler plays an upbeat, life affirming music for the tie dye crowd—Deadheads had to attach themselves to something after Jerry hung up his beard. Popper himself prefers to play long, chipper harmonica runs seeming intended to allow him to communicate with bats. This wouldn’t be fatal if his harmonicas weren’t the linchpin of the band’s sound. As it is, his playing overshadows the guitar work of the immensely gifted Chan Kinchla.

Popper has technical prowess galore, but his playing is too often facile. It has none of the soul, guts, or sense of lived experience of the sort you’ll hear in the work of Little Walter, Sunny Boy Williamson, and Paul Butterfield. Bob Dylan’s a rank amateur in comparison to Popper, but while Popper’s playing is all flash, Dylan uses his harmonica to convey real emotion.

People who call Popper the greatest blues harmonica player in the world ignore the fact that his liquid runs convey no understanding of the real function of the blues—namely, musically articulate what it means to be down and out. Which should come as no surprise. There are no sharecropper’s shacks in Princeton, New Jersey.

Blues Traveler’s songs, many of which you can hear on 2002’s Travelogue: Blues Traveler Classics, lean toward the depressingly happy—your Blues Traveler fan attends their shows to boogie, not get bummed out. The band’s peppy kinda hit “Run-Around” (you’ll know it if you hear it) is representative of the band’s cheerful shtick, as is its evil clone “Hook.” The song “Optimistic Thought” says it all; unhappy people harsh the collective buzz at a Blues Traveler show, and I’m surprised screens for clinical depression aren’t administered at the venue entrance.

Most of the songs on the compilation are machine-tooled to appall. Both “But Anyway” and “Crash Burn” prove that Popper can play fifty notes per second on the harpoon while conveying no discernible message, save for watch out Moby Dick. On the aforementioned “Optimistic Thought,” Popper makes various noises with his mouth, when what he should be doing is shutting it.

Having mulled over “Mulling It Over,” I decided it wasn’t worth mulling over. The otherwise so-so “Canadian Rose” goes down like the “Edmund Fitzgerald” under the excessive tonnage of Popper’s note load. I once saw Popper’s extended harmonica solo in “Just for Me” in a museum of Medieval torture devices. ”Conquer Me” opens on a promising hard rock note only to go full metal maudlin; “100 Years” has Joan Osborne sharing vocal duties with Popper and not much else going for it.

There are a precious few songs on Travelogue: Blues Traveler Classics worth hearing, and they’re the ones where the band lives up to the blues in their name. On “Carolina Blues,” Kinchla channels the monster sound of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” while Popper’s harmonica has some bottom to it. And the very Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Cry” survives Popper’s harmonica abuse gratis Kinchla’s guitar work and the presence of Gregg Allman himself, whose vocal swapping with Popper is one of the compilation’s highlights.

And while Popper does his best to sink “The Mountains Win Again” with the annoyingly high register that’s his default mode, the song’s majestic feel prevails. And then there’s “Sweet Pain,” which I include only because Popper doesn’t get within 50 yards of his harmonica. Perhaps it got a restraining order.

My grandmother was right about harmonica belts. It’s my personal belief that they should be illegal save for home defense, in which case you’re free to pepper the perp full of C notes. As it is, Popper’s wearing a harmonica vest in public merits his placement on the FBI’s Ten Most Unwanted list.

Caution diners—this Popper is all cheese and no jalapeno.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D-

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