John Popper and the rest of Blues Traveler, the New York-based gang of jam-happy road warriors that he fronts, are tied to Louisiana well beyond the obvious.
The band’s set at the ’92 Jazz & Heritage Festival was a Fest highlight, and the Traveler’s numerous marathon gigs at Tipitina’s and elsewhere jive with the city’s late-night credo.
The group’s most recent album, Save His Soul, was recorded in Bogalusa’s Studio in the Country. And, after Popper wrecked his motorcycle en route to that studio one afternoon, he spent much less-than-quality time in medical facilities around New Orleans.
But Popper, Blues Traveler’s vocalist and harp player, consummated a bond with the area on a much deeper, spiritual level: he buried a harmonica in Congo Square.
As the beefy frontman tells it, he has a habit of interring his instrument of choice in plots of land “if some place really moves me.” He considered placing one at Jimi Hendrix’s gravesite in Seattle (“I didn’t want to really dig there”). A student of history, he deposited a harp in a French field where Attila the Hun fought a major battle.
While studying jazz theory at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research, he boned up on the story of Congo Square and its profound effect on the timeline of American music that eventually winds its way to him.
Thus, when Popper passed through New Orleans in 1990 on the way home from a West Coast tour, he ventured into Armstrong Park late one night, and buried a harp at the historic site of Congo Square…he thinks.
“I really hope it was Congo Square,” he chuckles. “I asked some guy there, and he had no idea what I was talking about. I went all over that park looking for it. I picked an area that looked kind of like a square…I think there was a flagpole.
“I went in there and took a number of steps for my age (22 at the time) to the middle of the square, and I buried a harmonica. It was very religious.”
The physical effects, however, pale in comparison to those form Popper’s trip to Bogalusa last October. When Blues Traveler comes to Tipitina’s on June 8, Popper will still bear the scars of that visit: he is confined to a customized bar stool, unable to walk, still not healed after his wreck.
Calling from a tour stop in Eugene, Oregon, Popper, 26, says the recording project was proceeding smoothly until the accident. Traveling at a high rate of speed on a motorcycle, Popper rounded a bend and came upon a car stopped in the road. He tried to pass it; it turned into him. He broke the femur of his right leg near its juncture with the hip, and his left arm (“I’ve got a steel bar in my arm and steel plates in my leg”).
In hindsight, the record may have benefited from the unexpected band holiday. “We had time to really scrutinize what we had done, because I was forced to take time off,” says Popper. “We had been very adamant that we wanted to do it all by ourselves. We needed time to modify our attitude. We listened to the sound [of the initial, pre-accident tracks], and it wasn’t as full as it could be.”
So they enlisted Studio in the Country owner Gene Foster to assist with the engineering. “Gene respected our desire to be alone. He restrained what he wanted to tell us. When we let him loose he was an animal. And when we got the backup singers [including local country songstress Mari Serpas], he was great with them, too.”
Other members of the band were able to sample New Orleans’ music (bassist Bobby Sheehan sat in with Smilin’ Myron one night at Muddy Water’s), but Popper’s Big Easy experience was limited to his extended, post-accident stay at the Tulane Medical Center and physical therapy at F. Edward Herbert.
Was he a good patient?
“No. I screamed really loud when it hurt. I think I sunburned the back of my throat from screaming so much.
“There’s been nothing good. I mean, I’ve learned a lot about humility and patience and stuff like that, but in terms of it having any practical advantage, it doesn’t. It’s been a depriving experience. I can’t go anywhere by myself, dressing by myself is hard. Now, I can go to the can by myself. Onstage I’ve got to stay in a chair. I’ve got to ride around in a separate little van because I can’t get on the tour bus.
“I’m used to walking around. Now I feel like Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy.”