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Collaboration the name of the game for reinvigorated Blues Traveler

BY SELENA FRAGASSI | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

For the first time in his life, John Popper has baby fever. The 48-year-old doesn’t hold back his excitement about soon welcoming his first child into the world, but there’s also his other baby — the one named Blues Traveler — that has him feeling rather proud lately.

The New Jersey-rooted band, famous for its harmonica-wielding frontman and seamless interpretation of jam band, southern rock and the blues, recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its seminal album “four” (famous for the song “Run-Around”), and will soon mark 30 years since forming in 1987.

BLUES TRAVELER

When: 7:30 p.m., October 3

Where: House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $29.50

Info: (312) 923-2000; houseofblues.com/chicago

“We’ve been around, you can’t hide that fact,” Popper jokingly admits. Yet he also sees the silver lining of the band slowly moving into its legacy years. “The great thing for older bands like us is once you’ve proven yourself and people know who you are, you can then take that foundation and run amok with it and see what you can do with your identity.”

It’s part of the reason why Blues Traveler decided to blow things up on its latest release and do something completely novel for the group. Released in April, “Blow Up The Moon” finds Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla, bassist Tad Kinchla, keyboardist Ben Wilson and drummer Brendan Hill, making a collaborative album for the first time in their career, tapping a variety of unexpected artists for writing and recording sessions. That includes country duo Thompson Square, Chicago emo rockers Plain White T’s, electro pop act 3OH!3, hip-hop/ska mashup The Dirty Heads and a whole host of its ‘90s brethren like Jewel, Hanson, Rome Ramirez of Sublime, even NSYNC’s JC Chasez.

“When you play in band for a long time people expect you to always be in this same cast of musicians. You get pigeonholed. We were just this hippy band, but I wanted to try all these things we are not supposed to be,” says Popper, further admitting, “I’m proud of every single song on this album.”

He says the process was the next logical step for Blues Traveler who, after breaking into the independent realm in the last decade amidst unavoidable label drama, had started working with more and more outside personnel like Carrie Rodriguez and Alejandro Escovedo. “It was a breakthrough for us after having this factory process of writing for years. You have to change it up and always be evolving. Against a new backdrop we were able to reveal more about ourselves.”

“Blow Up the Moon” also had a big name behind its production: recorded in the L.A. studio owned by Dave Grohl, who Popper finally had the chance to appear with on stage at the Foo Fighters show in Indiana earlier this summer. “They were on my bucket list,” he says adding to a roll call of frequent guest spots he’s done over the years with Dave Matthews, Phish, Santana and The Grateful Dead among others.

“I guess there is a theme here and that’s collaboration,” Popper says, also evident in Blues Travelers’ decision to finally resurrect their once popular H.O.R.D.E. jam band festival this summer after a 17-year gap. “We love having that workshop stage where bands can come all times of day and play together in improvised arrangement,” he says. “It’s good to be back.”

If it’s all a lot to take on in one year, even for the man who once almost died from a heart attack while on tour, Popper says, “I need the turmoil. … I don’t know how to not keep going.” And so far he’s doing a good job of it, continuing to tour, releasing a biography in March and working on new material, which he warns might start to get “corny” with his daughter soon coming into his life.

“The reason my home life works is because I have somewhere to go,” he says. “This is the only job I’ve ever had. I’m very aware of how special that is. I have no real words to express how grateful I am the only thing I can do is treat it seriously.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.