John Popper, the great harmonica player and vocalist at the heart of Blues Traveler, only played with the Grateful Dead on a single song: Wang Dang Doodle at the 1991 Bill Graham memorial in Golden Gate Park.
From the opening notes of the tune, Popper does not hesitate to get involved in the mix. But he is also clearly trying to stay in his lane, remaining in a supporting role rather than taking over. In fact, Popper later commented that he
was very careful to be humble. I didn’t want to impose myself because when you try to establish an ego in a jam with the Grateful Dead, they’ll dissolve the ground beneath you and grow over you like vines. So I got my rocks off and put my chops in, but I didn’t get greedy and try to outdo them or anything.
And while David Graham, Bill’s son, told Popper after he came off the stage that he should have completely gone for it, Popper knew “there was no way I was going to go up there and try to push Garcia around.”
Both because of the way he seamlessly fit in on the tune and the similar sound of harmonica and accordion, Popper seems to fill the space that Hornsby would have had he been at the memorial with the Dead. But instead, we get a sweet little footnote in the history of the band beyond description and just a hint of what might have been had Popper ever sat in for an entire set with the boys.
Popper has said that every once in a while he sees a picture of Jerry and him on stage at the memorial. And he jokes that Jerry’s “fat but I’m even fatter, so it looks like the lunar eclipse of the sun where you can see me behind him. A Russian doll of fat musicians.” Despite his crass comment, Popper clearly relishes the memory of playing with the Dead and says the band “uses music like magic.”
Popper spent his formative years in the New York City orbit, graduating from high school in Princeton, New Jersey. Shortly after graduation, he moved to the big city with his Blues Traveler bandmates. Before too long, they started to achieve some regional success and became a house band of sorts at the Wetlands, the nightclub that has been referred to as “ground zero for post-Grateful Dead jam bands.”
Before Popper and Blues Traveler had made much noise outside of the tri-state area, David Graham brought a tape of the band to his dad, which Bill supposedly played for Jerry who commented on the “nice harp.” And a few months later, Bill Graham Productions signed Blues Traveler after Bill met them in person at a Jerry Garcia Band show in the Big Apple. It was under Graham’s direction that the band released their eponymous first album, Graham even choosing But Anyway as the single off the record.
Through the years, Popper has played with a wide variety of musicians on a host of projects. For instance, he added his harmonica to Leftover Salmon’s On the Other Side on their Nashville Sessions release; took the stage with Oteil Burbridge, Jimmy Herring, Danny Barnes, and Edwin McCain during one of Warren Haynes’s benefit concerts; and penned the lyrics to Phish’s “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” which Trey Anastasio wrote the music for.
Of course, Popper is also well known for founding the Horde Festival tour that brought so many jam bands to audiences across the country throughout the 1990s.
You can read more about Popper, including his experience with Bill Graham and the Grateful Dead, in his autobiography, Suck and Blow: And Other Stories I Am Not Supposed to Tell.