Think rock stars don’t appreciate how good they have it? Blues Traveler lead singer John Popper is thankful just to be walking again.
On Halloween 1992, Popper was riding his worn-out motorcycle to the studio to continue recording the blues-inflected quartet’s third A&M album, “Save His Soul.” Going 70 mph, he saw a car ahead of him had stopped; he felt he couldn’t stop safely enough so he decided to pass the car, then the car turned into him.
The heralded blues harp player suffered a severely broken leg, confining him to a wheelchair for more than a year. It didn’t deter him from touring, but it did become an enlightening experience.
“The next thing I’m getting is a car,” the New York native says, with a laugh. “I’m going to get back on a bike some day, but I’m thinking probably when I retire because I have too many people depending on me, and I learned that lesson the hard way.”
The way he sees it, the accident taught him three things.
“To appreciate what I had, what I still have and,” Popper says, “it taught me a huge lesson in patience.
“My cousin’s spent most of his life in a wheelchair. He slid down a slide head first and broke his neck when he was 17. He’s 41 now. He functions; he’s getting married and plays an active role in politics.
“He lives every day with this. I mean, I did it for a year and was going out of my mind.”
Popper also saw firsthand how the disabled are treated.
“What it is really, handicapped are expected to stay at home,” he says. “Wheelchair access is all well and good, but there are so many things that keep you from going outside. You can’t really go anywhere unless you have people to wrangle you or have some specially developed car. You’re supposed to stay at home, but I went and toured for a year. It was hell.”
Being in a wheelchair didn’t limit his performance, Popper says. In fact, not having to stand up increased his wind for the harmonica, allowing him better stamina.
Earlier this month, Popper and his bandmates – guitarist Chan Kinchla, bassist Bobby Sheehan and drummer Brendan Hill – timed the beginning of their current U.S. tour with the day Popper’s doctor said he could walk again.
“We were worried that we hadn’t toured in a while and that people would start to forget about us,” Popper says.
Since the tour began three weeks ago, the group’s audiences have more than doubled, from an average draw of 2,000 last year to about 4,500 a show now.
After the spring dates, Blues Traveler will lead the third annual H.O.R.D.E. Festival, with the Allman Brothers Band, Big Head Todd & The Monsters and others. The tour kicks off July 14 in Cleveland and runs for eight weeks.
Blues Traveler has also finished up its fourth, still-untitled album, tentatively due Aug. 23. Popper guarantees that fans of the jam-induced band won’t be disappointed.
“I would say this is the first album where we were receptive to a producer, where we were able to utilize a producer’s talent, and it’s also the first time where the producers kind of got what we’re about,” he says of Mike Barbiero and Steve Thompson, who mixed last year’s “Save His Soul.”
“This record, I think, really captures our live energy. I really think it’s going to be the best one we’ve done.”
BWF (before we forget): Blues Traveler’s fourth album, “four,” reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s pop chart in early 1995 and sold more than 5 million copies. The popularity of that album sparked gold-plated sales of the group’s first three albums. Their latest album, “Straight On Till Morning,” debuted at No. 11 on July 19, 1997. … Check out the band on the Web @ www.bluestraveler.com. … The Blues Traveler album discography – “Blues Traveler” (1991, A&M); “Travelers & Thieves” (1991); “Save His Soul” (1993); “four” (1994); “Live From the Fall” (1996); “Straight On Till Morning” (1997).
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