John Popper doesn't know what came over him that one night last winter, although he has a pretty good idea.
"Something in me kicked in and I just floored it," says the singer/harp slinger, referring to a brief, Beethoven-scored joy ride, that was the trip from his home to the recording studio in Santa Fe. "It was absolutely exhilarating. I felt free, because I was going to do something I loved, and just for me."
That something was a month-long recording session in the mountains of New Mexico. The self-titled debut (due out March 1, 2011, through 429 Records) of John Popper and The Duskray Troubadours to be specific, a side project that's more like a part-time band, a scrappy, roots-rock extension of Popper's work in Blues Traveler.
Now before you get the wrong idea, John Popper and The Duskray Troubadours is more than a Popper-led solo project or a back-to-basics whiff of nostalgia. It's the sum of six rock-solid players—rounded out by bassist Steve Lindsay, drummer Mark Clark, guitarists Kevin Trainor and Aaron Beavers, and guitarist/producer Jono Manson—coming together to channel the loose, limit-less spirit of simpler days.
"What I love about this album is that I'm playing differently," says Popper, "and not because I tried to, either. The music led me there, which is the best way to do it, really. On this album, melody is what drove everything."
"It's a full spectrum of songs," adds Manson, "but it all fits together. That's because the main personalities on this record are the tunes. They're the kind that could stand up with a whole band or one person singing them."
Indeed they are. In fact, it's hard to single any songs out when they've all got something special to offer. We're gonna try, though, starting with the boot-scuffing cow-punk chords of "Leave It Up To Fate," the bottle-passing back porch grooves of "Champipple," the heart-tugging, honey-dipped blues hooks of "Bereft," and the Memphis soul melodies of "Hurt So Much" and "Something Sweet."
Listen to that last one closely, and you'll find a lyrical nod to Second Avenue, a New York City strip that was the breeding ground for Blues Traveler and the Troubadours' extended family in the late '80s/early '90s. Back then, Popper would often open for Manson's band (The Worms) at Nightingales—an absolute epicenter of live music, and pint-sinking crowds who stuck around from 10 'til 4.
"No matter how much you want to go back to a certain time, you can't," admits Manson. "I mean, we have more than 20 years of experience behind us now. So there wasn't a conscious effort to revisit a certain place musically, so much as a zone that was familiar to all of us."
"There's a certain confidence that comes from age and wisdom that you can't fake," adds Popper. "I appreciate the opportunity to even make this record. And I'm glad Jono and I decided to do this so far in the game. In the end, I needed it; I needed to feel this liberated."