It's a familiar story on the local club scene: A famous music act comes to Madison for a concert, and rumors begin to circulate that one of our nightspots will get a visit from The Great Entertainer. I once hung around the Slipper Club well past my bedtime because of whispers that Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, in town for a booking at the Kohl Center, might show. He didn't.
But last Tuesday a Great Entertainer indeed did pay a visit, and he even sang harmonies on a rendition of Steve Miller's "The Joker." The entertainer was John Popper, singer and harmonica player for the jam combo Blues Traveler, and the setting was the Crystal Corner Bar, where the mirthful cover band the Hometown Sweethearts have long hosted a Tuesday night show.
Popper was here for an appearance at the Majestic Theatre with his solo venture, the John Popper Project. The show was canceled, however, so he presumably was facing either a quiet night at the hotel, or a gig, any gig. He somehow deduced that a Sweethearts performance is the place to be, and rightly so: The trio's winking covers of improbable pop favorites ("Benny and the Jets," "Hey Ya") are a top local draw.
By the time the Sweethearts' show began at 9:30, anticipation already was building at the Crystal Corner. "A lot of people seemed to know it was going on," says Sweethearts front man Nate Palan. "I was skeptical."
But while the group was on break after a second set, Popper entered wearing horn-rimmed glasses and his signature hat. "He showed up with an entourage, about six people being his buddy, throwing him compliments," says Palan, wryly. "Before he arrived, I was making all our 'I hate Blues Traveler' jokes."
A quick conference in the dressing room followed, and then Popper joined the Sweethearts on harmonica for a set that included Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," the Beatles' "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" and Duran Duran's "Rio," as well as the Miller tune. A finale of Harry Belafonte's "Jump in the Line" concluded the evening.
Has Palan ever had a close encounter with a musician so prominent? "I once met the bassist of Pavement while walking the streets of New York," he says. "My folks met Tina Turner."
How did Popper measure up? "He's a good player," says Palan. "I'd play with him again."