The H.O.R.D.E. came through Portland last weekend. Portland being the tour's last show this year, the artists and crew were feeling particularly sentimental.
Unfortunately, this also meant that John Popper played at least one tune with every band.
I'm rightly impressed by Popper's harmonica skills. Every time he plays, I think, "Wow. I could never do that."
But harmonica is harmonica. The power of the instrument is it's simplicity, and the best harmonica players understand it's limitations.
Because of its unique timbre, it is most powerful when it is used sparingly.
When it whines and hums at just the right times, we are moved.
John Popper, though, is trapped under the weight of his prodigious ability.
He can play so fast that unwitting listeners are shocked when they learn he is playing harmonica.
It is impressive.
And to keep up appearances, Popper is obligated to impress.
Each harmonica solo begins beautifully. For a few bars, he plays musically, carefully, melodically. And then, suddenly, inevitably, he reaches the instrument's high range. He throws out a constant barrage of eighth notes and triplets.
It all sounds the same.
Jazz musicians tend to go through this phase. John Coltrane went through it. Critics called it "sheets of sound."
Coltrane grew out of it, though. He blew like crazy until he had played all of the notes he could, and then he realized that his prodigy was impressive, but not very musical.
He began thinking again about what the music demanded of him. Just because he could play fast didn't mean he should play fast.
Suddenly his music became introspective, beautiful, and nearly perfect.
His "sheets of sound" period was amazing (I own several albums where Coltrane blows up and down his horn in unbelievable ways...) but I am more impressed with the careful period that followed it.
It is probably unfair to compare Coltrane and Popper. Coltrane is legendary. Popper is a mere prodigy.
Someday, Popper may learn to play less. He may extend that purely musical minute at the beginning of his solos. He may grow into something great.
But this weekend, we put up with Fastball, laughed with and enjoyed Brown Van 3000, were absolutely impressed by Bare Naked Ladies, enjoyed the stylings of Galactic, loved Ben Harper but wished we could see him in a smaller venue, rocked out to the hard-core blues and funk of Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise...
and left before Blues Traveler played a note.