The band, which has played with guitar virtuoso Carlos Santana and opened for the Rolling Stones, comes to Seattle on Sunday, Nov. 12.
Several decades ago, Blues Traveler was among the new generation of young jam bands following in the mighty footsteps of the Grateful Dead. As Blues Traveler celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, frontman John Popper wonders where the time has gone.
“It’s pretty amazing,” says the singer-songwriter and harmonica player, calling from the road. “We can’t believe we’ve gotten to this point.”
Popper, 50, says he’s learned a few life lessons while traveling the long musical road.
With Los Colognes. 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, The Showbox @ The Market, 1426 First Ave., Seattle; $29.50 (showboxpresents.com)
“There’s a certain kind of confidence that comes with being older that you can’t fake when you’re young,” he says. “I remember opening for the Neville Brothers when we were in our 20s. Art Neville played only a cowbell. We were amazed how he stood there and ran the room with this little piece of percussion. He had this authority that we — being young — just couldn’t fake.”
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Now a music veteran himself, Popper has been busy marking his band’s anniversary with several projects. Blues Traveler has been on the road all summer on a tour that will continue through part of the fall and winter. The tour stops in Seattle on Sunday, Nov. 12. The band is currently finishing a new record that will release in 2018.
“The album is so new we haven’t even decided on a definitive title yet,” he laughs.
Popper is also performing a number of solo dates. These stripped-down performances give him the opportunity to explore a wide range of material in a quieter setting. He’ll be accompanied by his bandmate Ben Wilson on piano and backing vocals.
“It’s really exciting,” Popper says. “This is something Ben and I have always wanted to do.”
The idea for the smaller shows first occurred when the band was finishing up its 2012 album “Suzie Cracks the Whip.” One of the songs, “Cara Let the Moon,” was a spare, bittersweet ballad that featured Popper’s soulful voice accompanied only by stately piano chords. The number was a muted departure from the band’s trademark punchy blues-rock.
“I call it my torch song,” Popper says about the tune. “There are a bunch of songs I’ve written through the years that sound really good that way. Getting to go through the entire history of all the songs — and encapsulate that 30 years into a solo show — is really a treat. That’s the fun part of it for me.”
Popper feels he has now accrued the maturity and seasoning to interpret his own material in fresh new ways.
“If it was 20 or 25 years ago, I don’t think I could do this solo performance that I’m doing now,” he says. “I needed to have perspective.”
Popper was a teenager when he formed Blues Traveler in the late 1980s in his parents’ garage in Princeton, New Jersey. Not long after that, he and several bandmates moved to New York for college and studied music at the New School in Manhattan.
The young Popper and his bandmates also started playing music at local open-mic nights. They soon met people in the blues scene, including vocalist Joan Osborne and guitarist Johnny Allen. For the members of Blues Traveler, it was a heady time split between learning from esteemed faculty in the classroom and jamming with up-and-coming musicians in the clubs.
“By day we were in this program at the New School with the best jazz musicians in New York showing us their secrets and teaching us the aesthetics of playing,” Popper recalls. “At night, we would go out to these clubs and learn how to play live music, get people dancing and sell booze.”
Blues Traveler was soon working steadily and playing gigs at blues venues, restaurants and campus fraternities. They were also developing a grass-roots base of devoted fans.
“The way we got our audience was very organic,” Popper says. “A lot of our friends were going to school at the same time. Some of them were social chairmen and chairwomen in charge of parties and they would hire us to play. Ten years later, these same people would hire us to play work functions. So we always had that work.”
Blues Traveler’s early success “was very word of mouth,” he continues. “We let people tape our shows and share those tapes because we felt our live performances were for the people. We took a very Grateful Dead attitude toward that.”
The band signed to the A&M Records label in 1990. Their 1994 breakthrough album “Four” yielded the hits “Run-Around” and “Hook.” The jam band found a big fan in late-night talk-show king David Letterman and became a recurring musical guest on his television show.
Over time, Blues Traveler found itself collaborating and sharing stages with some of the biggest names in music. The band played with guitar virtuoso Carlos Santana and opened for the Rolling Stones.
Popper and his bandmates founded the H.O.R.D.E. Festival in 1992. An acronym that stands for “Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere,” the rootsy multi-artist summer tour featured legendary heavy-hitters like Neil Young and popular young jam bands Phish and Spin Doctors.
As a long-running frontman, Popper pulls double-duty as both a vocalist and harmonica player. That’s a lot of physical wear and tear on the throat. Over the years, he’s learned to adapt to the changes that come with aging.
“When I was young, I used to shriek a note and sing completely incorrectly, but I could hold a note because I had so much power in my lungs,” he says. “A person’s physical ability changes as they get older. Now I have a lot of technique, but a lot less power. That’s why (my style) lends itself to a nice acoustic performance.”
He’s enjoying the intimate audience experience that comes with a solo show. It allows for a change of pace from his hard-charging gigs with Blues Traveler.
“You see so many people (at band shows), it can get overwhelming and distancing,” he says. “That’s what’s great about the solo shows — there is a direct relationship with the audience again. I really love that.”