Happy Birthday John Popper: Performing With moe. In 2002

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Today marks John Popper’s 54th birthday. The renowned singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist serves as frontman and harmonica player for Blues Traveler.

Popper co-founded the band in 1987 in Princeton, New Jersey with drummer Brendan Hill, bassist Bobby Sheehan and guitarist Chad Kinchla. While Traveler is perhaps best known for their ’90s mainstream hits like “Run-Around,” “Hook,” and “But Anyway,” the group has deep ties with the jam band scene.

Upon relocating to New York City in the late 1980s, Blues Traveler caught the attention of David Graham, son of famed concert promoter Bill Graham. David became the group’s manager and when Bill Graham died in 1991, Blues Traveler released a live tribute EP, On Tour Forever, which featured Carlos Santana. Popper also performed with the Grateful Dead that same year at a live tribute concert to Graham. In 1992, Popper and Blues Traveler founded the H.O.R.D.E Tour, which was integral in the emergence of the jam band scene in the early 1990s giving jam bands like Phish, Widespread Panic and Dave Matthews Band national attention.

After Blues Traveler found mainstream success in the mid ’90s with their album four, the band experienced tragedy when founding bassist Bobby Sheehan died of an accidental drug overdose. While Blues Traveler continues on to this day, Popper dug into his role as a highly sought-after guest musician. The history of blues harmonica is long and often uncredited, but Popper is one of the instrument’s greatest players and his ability to play rapid-fire, high single note puts him at the pinnacle of the instrument.

In 2002 John continued his ties with the jam scene when he sat in with moe. for the entire second set and encore of their April 20 concert at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia one night after first joining the band as a special guest. moe. kicked off the show with a six-song first set that began with the guitar harmony laced “Lazarus” and also included big excursions on “Four” and a nearly 40-minute set-closing section of “Faker” > “Kids.”

Popper emerged with moe. for the second set which saw the band getting right back into jamming vintage tunes with a 20-minute “Mexico.” About six minutes in Popper reels off a tasty extended solo with the band building behind him. John then led moe. on vocals through Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” with the audience joining in on the classic rock sing-along before the band returned to “Mexico.” Popper also lent his expertise on the bluesy “Opium,” which stretched to nearly 19 minutes. The second set also included well-jammed moe. favorites like “Rebubula, “Buster” and a set-closing “Recreational Chemistry.”

The classics kept coming as Popper and the band emerged for the encore beginning with “St. Augustine” and followed by Blues Traveler’s “Hook.” The performance marked the first and only time moe. as ever played the Traveler hit. One of Popper’s signature songs, “Hook” showcases not only his amazing harmonica playing but also his vocal and songwriting skills, a fitting end to Popper’s sit-in as well as the evening.

To celebrate John Popper’s birthday, listen to moe.’s 2002 420 concert including Popper’s second set and encore appearance below via Dr. Stan Lobitz:

Setlist

Set One: Lazarus, She Sends Me, Four, Blue Eyed Son, The Faker > Kids

Set Two: Mexico > The Joker* > Mexico, Opium > lylelovet., Rebubula, Buster, Conviction Song, Recreational Chemistry

Encore: St. Augustine, Hook*

Notes:

* First time played.

Set II and encore with John Popper of Blues Traveler on harmonica.

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