Four by Blues Traveler
From a buzzy band with an unstoppable single to being in the dollar bin of the used record store, Blues Traveler is simultaneously successful beyond anyone's wildest imagination and sympathetic.
“Hey man, turn it up! You’ve got to hear this guy play the harmonica!”
Nobody ever thought that phrase would be uttered in the 1980s when we were listening to rock ballads from rock stars that looked like they never carved time out of their days to eat food, let alone somehow become a harmonica virtuosos. Once the cock rock of the 80s gave way to the “alternative” 90s, we threw all the rules out the window. Here we were in 1994 listening to this mostly organic, acoustic-sounding pop song with keys, what sounds like conga drums, and yes, a distorted, histrionic, acrobatic-sounding harmonica to go along with the distinct tenor of Blues Traveler’s John Popper. You heard the song too many times. It’s “Run-Around” of course, and it’s not only the opener of the album four, it’s most people’s introduction to the band Blues Traveler and their unmistakable lead singer and harp player originally from Chardon Ohio, John Popper.
Blues Traveler is more than John Popper, but it’s hard to not jump straight to the archetype-breaking frontman. In those days, where even though we’d left the 80s behind, many of the same archetypes of lead singers still existed. Chris Cornell was the master of the “Jesus Christ Pose.” Eddie Vedder spawned a hundred copycats lording over a microphone stand and making odd, distance-looking expressions. And here was a mountain of a human with wild scruffy hair and a vest with special pockets, each holding different harmonicas for different song keys. And he didn’t just blast into that harp like he wanted to break it as he would later accuse Alanis Morrissette of doing. This dude was the Eddie Van Halen of the freaking harmonica. Except when you watch Eddie Van Halen you see the way he taps and you think you might be able to copy him. In John Popper’s giant Chunky Soup-can-sized hands, he hides the most glorious-sounding magic trick as his patented distorted harmonica beckons forth with power and accuracy that still seems impossible. The runs that Popper makes with his staccato harp solos are played with reckless abandon, but still somehow with a technical brilliance that services each of his band’s rootsy songs.
“Who is this new band, Blues Traveler?” Another trick! The album is called “four” because damn it if this band that almost none of us had heard of already had three albums to their names. It’s another one of those “overnight success stories” that really didn’t happen overnight at all. Once you get past “Run-Around” and listen to the rest of the album, it’s obvious that this is a mature band that has come into their own. This is where I’m going to dive in and discuss my very favorite song, “Look Around.”
“Look Around” is one of those songs in my lifetime that I consider perfect. It’s a song that I wish I’d written and I wish I could perform as well as John Popper from a vocal standpoint. Every word feels like the most important thing that John Popper has ever sung. It starts softly and builds before finally exploding, but instead of just briefly hitting the high, it dwells there and keeps delivering until the very end of the 5:41 run time. If John Popper and his band never delivered anything but this section of “Look Around” to the world of music, it would be enough.
And I don't care
Buyer beware of me
Cause it might get rough
If you want peace then live alone
If you want to hide then find a stage
Each a brief but perfect home
To accommodate your rage
In the midst of all my crimes
I feel lost
Or have I lost enough
Remind me as they say
It's up to you
The things you throw away
Absolute perfection. I love to sing and I feel like John Popper was one of my teachers. I used to drive around as a teenager with this song blasting as loud as possible trying to sing all those high notes in half as meaningful a way as John Popper did on four. I used to lose my voice on road trips singing, and I’m convinced that singing John Popper’s parts took the biggest toll. I went after all those Adam Duritz notes from the Counting Crows albums, but his vocals are decidedly thinner with less meaty growls than a John Popper vocal. Oh, and it does hurt the throat after a while, but the feelings you get when you hit those notes are worth it.
Despite all the success of the album and “Run-Around” and eventually “Hook,” the band still kind of felt like that dollar bargain bin one-hit-wonder. It felt like they ended up being disrespected or devalued like Hootie and the Blowfish, or No Doubt. I ended up feeling differently about four over time because I’d see dozens of copies available at every used record store for the store minimum. I loved the album and wouldn’t part with mine in those days, but somehow I allowed these outside variables to influence my own perceptions. And to be fair to me, those punitive-looking red stickers denoting a $1 bargain disc were almost a literal scarlet letter.
But you know what? You can’t be in the bargain bin unless you sell some astronomical number of albums and Blues Traveler did just that, selling SIX MILLION COPIES of four thanks to “Run-Around” and “Hook.”
And when the music is great and holds up, time tends to heal all perceived wounds, even those implanted in our brains from immature perspectives. In September, this record will turn 28 years old, and there are barely even used record stores these days. When I put four on this week to relive my high school years again, I was taken with so many of these tunes. “Run-Around” feels almost fresh after being one of the most played-out songs of the 90s. It was so ubiquitous on the radio that like Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones,” you felt like if you never heard it again, you’d be fine. But let’s move beyond that tune, and “Look Around.”
“Hook” is still as infectious a pop song, and unlikely hit, as it ever was. The bluesy, rock songs on four all hold up, but for me, it’s the more ballady moments. I will still listen to “The Mountains Win Again” whenever I can. The chorus on that one is just awesome. I don’t want to blow your mind, and these two songs aren’t really anything alike, but there are some parallels in song structure in “The Mountains Win Again” and how the chorus resolves, which recalls “Silent Lucidity” by Queensrÿche. It’s such a weird connection, but I think of it every time. The next time you listen to Mountains, instead of resolving with the lyrics, “the mountains win again,” replace them with “silent lucidity.”
I’m weird. Let’s keep moving.
I’m sure a lot of people who bought the album never made it to the end, but before “Brother John,” Blues Traveler crush you with one more power ballad to let you know they really mean it. “Just Wait” is a tremendous song.
You all remember Andrew. He’s written here and I’ve talked about him plenty already. Andrew and I talk about album closers all the time and how a great album really needs to finish strongly to be a classic. I do wish that Blues Traveler had stopped after “Just Wait” because I thought it was a perfect album-ender.
I’m sure the band feels that “Brother John” was a good jam to end the album and very true to their live shows, jamming for over six minutes to cap it, but not for me.
Another trip down memory lane to high school, but I never got to see Blues Traveler until the Innings Festival in 2019. I was looking forward to it, but not like that much. That was until I saw them for myself. Not only did they kill their own set, they covered “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” by Tom Petty. It led me straight back into loving the band and their catalog.
It also made me remember that Blues Traveler did the most phenomenal cover of “Imagine” by John Lennon. That’s where I’m going to leave you today. I’ll never try to convince you that anyone did a better version of “Imagine” than the original, however, I’ll say, Blues Traveler doing their version in the style of their band and hitting the highs they did on their best ballads is a wonder. John Popper goes off vocally. He tries to break your heart with a soulful harmonica solo as only he could. The first notes of his solo are perfect. It’s one of the most respectful covers because it tries so hard without shitting all over the original.