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Blues Traveler frontman John Popper channeled his improvisational skills in a new direction on Friday in Hollywood, joining as accompanist and actor for Opening Night: The Improvised Musical. The weekly show at iO West, in which plot, songs and dances are completely improvised, has been running for more than a decade and has welcomed guest performers from The Simpsons’ Dan Castellaneta to Breaking Bad’s Matt Jones.
With an audience-generated title of Skinny Lizards, the performers created a surreal song-and-dance narrative of a hardened reptile killer named Sticks Hamilton — played by Popper, who accompanied the show’s pianist on harmonica throughout the proceedings and sang lead and backup on most of the tunes. From his seated perch stage right, he also acquitted himself well as a comedic actor, particularly in scenes opposite troupe member Shulie Cowen, who has appeared on 2 Broke Girls and Parks and Recreation.
“I grew up watching Saturday Night Live and those comedians — that’s really even what got me into music was The Blues Brothers,” says Popper of his one-night experiment with improv. “I always felt like — and I still do — that I’m just talented enough to know that I’m not quite good enough to do comedy.” It was Cowen, who shares a hometown — Princeton, N.J. — and high school alma mater with Popper, who recruited the bluesman for the show. Popper, who with Blues Traveler scored Top 10 success with the album Four and the single “Run-Around” in the mid-1990s, studied under the beloved but tough jazz ensemble director who inspired J.K. Simmons’ character in Whiplash (written and directed by another Princeton High School grad, Damien Chazelle).
Popper, who is currently promoting his memoir Suck & Blow (co-authored with Dean Budnick) and will appear Monday night at Book Soup in West Hollywood for a reading and signing, embraced the randomness of the night’s adventure. “The whole time I was kind of dreading, thinking, ‘I really do not know what I’m doing. I’ve got no expertise to kick back on,’ and that was kind of the fun of it — that’s why I couldn’t not do it,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s the point of this, is to really throw yourself on the fire.”
— Shulie Cowen (@ShulieCowen) April 9, 2016
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