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Three Club Bands Living It Up As the Un-Dead
by Michael Rubiner
New York Times, New York, NY
Apr 19th, 1992



The first thing one notices at a live show of Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors, or Phish is the preponderance of tie-dyed, dreadlocked, barefoot college students engaged in what looks suspiciously like the loose-limbed, trippy gyrations known as "Dead dancing." And, in fact, the careers of these groups have been at once bolstered and vexed by comparisons to the Grateful Dead. On the one hand, the bands' appeal to Deadheads has given them a huge fan base; on the other, they have had to suffer the indignity of being dismissed as Dead imitators.

The Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors came up through the New York club scene in the 1980's, first at Nightingales, a small East Village bar, then at Wetlands, a club in TriBeCa. Phish began as a bar band in Burlington, Vt., where its members had met while in college. Even before the bands began touring nationally, they had built reputations that spread by word of mouth and bootleg concert tapes - especially on college campuses.

Now the three are considered the nexus of a scene. (Groups like Widespread Panic and Colonel Bruce Hampton, which are both from the South, are sometimes lumped in, too.) The Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors and Phish seem to have similar audiences, and they've often played shows together, especally in their early days. In fact, the Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors became known for a ritual in which one band ceded the stage to the other during a song, without missing a beat. But musically, the three have perhaps more differences than similarities.

The Blues Traveler is, naturally, a blues-steeped band, propelled by the Paul Butterfield-influenced harmonica riffs of its vocalist John Popper. The Spin Doctors are funk-rockers who combine fleet-fingered, popping bass runs with guitar work in the tradition of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Joe Perry. Phish is the most eclectic of the three: shows are likely to include anything from an atonal fugue to big-band-style call-and-response to a cappella barbershop quartet. (Blues Traveler will perform at Roseland on April 29, Phish will appear at the Lone Star Roadhouse on May 15.)

Few of the musicians are what Mr. Popper describes as "card-carrying Deadheads." But it's easy to see why people make the connections. Like the Dead, the groups tour constantly and tend toward long-winded improvisation and marathon shows. They also maintain a strong grass-roots connection with their audienceby offering perks like low ticket prices; Phish fans have even set up a computer network - called Phishnet - to keep in touch with one another.

The groups resent the Dead label, and attribute it to generic factors. "Bill Graham referred to the music that we play and that the Dead plays as 'pelvic music,'" Mr. Popper says. "The reason Deadheads come to see us, really, is because they like to dance."

Trey Anastasio, lead singer and co-guitarist of Phish, adds: "Deadheads like to see people who are jamming live. It's an energy or something that these people are after."

Walter Durkacz, who books bands at Wetlands, has his own theory. "One reason the Deadheads have latched onto bands like that, especially Blues Traveler, is they found out about the Grateful Dead through their parents or older people," he says. "But Blues Traveler was somebody more of their generation. It's like 'Here's a band that's more like us than the Grateful Dead, who are like my dad and mom, who named me Galaxy.'"

In a way, the groups' popularity can be attributed to a factor that has nothing to do with the graying San Francisco rockers: in an age where live shows have become increasingly dependent on technology and careful scripting, these bands bring back the spontaneity of live music. "One thing people enjoy about these bands is they don't say 'This is a concert and we're going to come out and do our 60 minutes, and that's the end of it,'" says Mr. Durkacz. "The bands take more chances on stage instead of just putting a head set on and playing to a click track. Every show can be different. People think they're really getting their money's worth."