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On the Road...Again
by Jeff Giles
Rolling Stone, National
May 28th, 1992



"One more thing, guys. We have to talk about the strong antidrug stance we're gonna take on this tour. There's gonna be no drugs backstage. No liquor and no drugs."

"Yeah, no bad drugs."

It's a Sunday evening at Bill Graham Management, in Manhattan, and there's a meeting in session. Blues Traveler is here. Phish is here. Delegates from the Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic and Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit are here. The conference room reeks of pot, and the table is littered with pistachio nuts, cigarette butts, Coke cans and empty bottles of vodka and scotch. Singer John Popper of Blues Traveler is thumb-wrestling with Bruce Hampton. Guitarist John Bell of Widespread Panic is drinking Dewar's our of a measuring cup. Drummer Jon Fishman of Phish is rolling around on the carpet and screaming. And everybody else is rushing off to the Allman Brothers show across town. It looks like the meeting is over.

Before these bands wrecked the place, the laid plans for a sort of minitour. They tentatively agreed to meet up for a handful of concerts this summer, to join forces and fans, to play their various brands of barefoot boogie all night long.

It's about time. For the last few years, young, jam-happy outfits like Blues Traveler, Phish and the Spin Doctors have been riding in the wake of old road warriors like the Allman Brothers and, most notably, the Grateful Dead. With little record-company support, these bands have been sparking grass-roots followings wherever tapes are taped and then taped again. The bands are playing different sets every night, nearly 200 nights a year. They're attracting crowds of bootleggers who stand at the back of the club saying, "Hey, man, don't bump my mike." They're doing what the Spin Doctors' frontman, Chris Barron, always wanted to do: "Play the gig, blow everybody's mind and make music that's music."

Warren Haynes, who plays slide guitar for the Allmans and who has jammed with both Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors, has a theory about all this. "I think these kids feel like they missed out on a lot of cool shit," he says. "And they did. Music used to be an emotional thing. It really restores my faith to see these young bands forgetting about hit singles, to see them improvising and playing music the way it was played in the old days."

Punk and new wave had CBGB, an appropriately grim and skanky stomping ground. Barefoot boogie has found more upscale Manhattan digs - an airy, hippieish downtown think tank known as the Wetlands Preserve. One Friday in February, a group called Chan's Fruits and Vegetables prepares to go onstage. The fact that the band does not exist hasn't stopped it from packing the place. Chan's, after all, is a code name for Blues Traveler, and Traveler fans aren't very good at keeping secrets.

At the moment, some of the young followers are milling around the shell of the psychedelicized Volkswagen bus, which serves as a gift shop offering comic books about the Grateful Dead, T-shirts, pro-choice buttons, antinuke buttons, buttons that say TEACH RESPECT FOR THE EARTH AND ALL LIVING CREATURES and at least one save-the-rain-forest coloring book. Downstairs, in a black-lit hallway, other followers are leaning against swirling, Seventies-style rock posters. A college kid is saying, "I got a roach clip if you need it, man." Another college kid is saying, "Thanks, man, but I'm saving this for breakfast." Both of them are wearing plaid shirts, tie-dye T-shirts and weird silver rings. Both look like they got lost on the way to a Dead show.

Before tonight's performance, the guys in Blues Traveler hunker down for an interview in their grungy Brooklyn living room. "Everybody's talking about the new Dead," says singer John Popper. "Everybody's saying, 'Who's gonna be the new Dead?' What is it - an elected office? It's like 'Who's gonna be the new Johnny Carson?' Come on. Only Johnny's Johnny."

Any band that indulges in long, rolling, improvisational sets is bound to summon up the Grateful Dead sooner or later. In general, though, Blues Traveler, Phish, and the Spin Doctors sound very little like the Dead and nothing like one another. The Spin Doctors, who have released a wonderfully vivid studio debut called Pocket Full of Kryptonite, play a funky, reggae-inflected pop. Phish, which just made its first major-label outing with A Picture of Nectar, has basically an artrock sensibility, although it tosses off fusion of every description with ease. And then there's Blues Traveler, which plays a stormy variety of roadhouse rock highlighted by Popper's transcendent harmonica work. In the words of bassist Bobby Sheehan: "We kinda like to pick you up and throw you on the ground. That's our thing."

If the truth were known, the aforementioned groups owe more to the Grateful Dead's business strategies than they owe to the Dead's musical ones. They're trying to learn from the Dead's organizational model - health benefits, profit sharing - and have met with varying degrees of success. Phish runs a fastidious, small-scale touring operation and turns a neat profit. Blues Traveler thinks big. It attacks everything with a youthful abandon, splurging on tour buses, lighting rigs and sound systems it can't really afford. Despite grossing $1 million last year, the band is in debt.

On tour, however, the groups are in the same boat. The bands have various strongholds - Widespread Panic and the Aquarium Rescue Unit reign supreme in the South, for instance - but they cross paths frequently. They play in roughly the same clubs and in front of roughly the same retro-minded crowds, a fact that makes the minitour seem a shrewd enterprise. "We're like marauders out on the high seas," says Sheehan. "We'll meet Phish or Spin Doctors in Montana. Everybody's hair will be all fucked up, and we'll all be like 'What's up, dude?!' They don't even have to say anything. You can just look them in the eye, and you know what they're going through."

Life on the high seas isn't so bad when you have fans in every port, of course. Blues Traveler opens tonight's show at Wetlands with "Gina." Occasionally, jam-oriented bands lapse into formless improv odysseys that go around the bend and never make it back again. This evening, though, the Traveler quickly finds its singular, shuffling groove, and John Popper shouts, "We're gonna play all night, 'cause this is home, goddamn it!" Fans crushed up against the stage manage to bob and sway, while those in the less populated regions of the club do a slow-motion dance that looks like a karate exercise. There will be no slam dancing tonight. There will be no bodies passed overhead. If Nirvana fans feel the music, Traveler fans actually listen to it.

When the set's over, a twenty-year-old woman named Staci crashes onto a couch in the lounge downstairs. "I was a Deadhead for years," she says. "But that whole scene's been ruined for me. There's all these burnt-out hippie scumbags exploiting everybody and selling drugs that aren't even any fuckin' good. But you can go to a Blues Traveler show, and everybody's your own age, and you don't have to worry about getting mugged. And, man, they do these totally sick jam sessions that are perfect for acid, because a hit of acid lasts a long time. Anyway, now I consider myself a tourhead. You know the Spin Doctors? I'd go on tour with them - if I wasn't hanging out with Blues Traveler."

In general, the Wetlands lounge is pretty mellow. Nearly everybody seems to be a fresh-scrubbed twenty-year-old wearing fatigues or a loose, flowery dress. Nearly everybody seems to be sitting Indian style, fiddling with a leather bracelet and drinking a Rolling Rock. It's unlikely that many Blues Traveler fans are as hard-core as Staci, but they're all clearly in the thrall of a band that is definitely theirs. Everything about the Traveler, Phish and the Spin Doctors, in fact, seems tailor-made for obsession. They play live constantly but never play the same set twice, which means that serious scholars must endeavor to see every gig. They encourage bootlegging, which in turn encourages fans to swap and trade and assemble mammoth tape collections. They foster a tribal, extended-family atmosphere, which makes every concert a social event as well as a musical one. And they've yet to be embraced by radio or video - Phish's indie releases are rarely found in record stores - which gives the whole enterprise the urgent aura of a cult.

There have always been musicians who believe that music is born not in studios but onstage and that an album is, above all else, a great souvenir. (Twenty years ago, this article would have been about Little Feat and Hot Tuna, as well as the Allmans and the Dead.) Fortunately, there have always been fans who believe it, too. Staci, who has seen the Traveler about a hundred times and is following it to Europe tomorrow, makes her way upstairs for the next set. On the way, she runs into a neatly groomed, thirtyish man in a white turtleneck. "This is Greg," she says, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Greg's a tourhead, too. You'd never know it, would you? He looks totally normal."

There's a danger in running a self-sufficient, word-of-mouth operation: If you prove that you could spend the rest of your life on the road, your record company might just let you. Labels generally give this sort of band a small advance, and early on, at least, they don't knock themselves out trying to sell records to anyone outside the group's own hard-won fan base. A&M was quite surprised when Blues Traveler, which is managed by the late Bill Graham's son David, sold more than 200,000 copies of its fine debut, Blues Traveler. And one can't help thinking that Epic still hasn't figured out what a good thing it has on its hands with the Spin Doctors.

One afternoon, twenty-four-year-old Chris Barron - the Doctor's hilariously loopy stoner-artiste - settles down in an East Village coffee shop to talk. Barron went to high school with the members of Blues Traveler in Princeton, New Jersey, and followed them to New York in the late Eighties. "I lived with them and played solo between their sets," Barron says. "And money was tight, man. I ate and ran a few times. I stole. Hopped the subway. Slept with girls who had money, you know? And I used to go into Popper's room looking for food. One time, I ate two stale Cheez Doodles because I was that hungry."

While enrolled in a jazz program at the New School, Barron hooked up with a guitarist named Eric Schenkman and formed the Spin Doctors. "In the Eighties, everybody hated music," Barron says. "So we were trying to make this new kind of old kind of rock & roll. That whole aesthetic had been lost. Everything sounded like fake drummers and synthesized bullshit, and we wanted to make something human and real. We wanted to bake some pumpernickel, as opposed to all that presliced stuff."

"One time I was at a Blues Traveler gig," says Schenkman, "and Popper's sister said to me, 'You can't deny that they're making music up there.' I feel that way about us. When we're onstage improvising, we're not playing music, we're making it."

Pocket Full of Kryptonite has sold 60,000 copies thus far. There hasn't been much in the way of a record-company push for radio or video airplay, which is unfortunate, because of all these bands, the Spin Doctors play the sunniest, most accessible pop. Onstage, the band mixes top-flight musicianship with goofy, off-the-wall theatrics. Drummer Aaron Comess and bassist Mark White make for a tough-minded rhythm section, and Schenkman, a terrifically resourceful guitarist, quotes jazz and reggae, Jimi Hendrix and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

All the while, Barron does a spastic, rubbery dance. He asks the audience to repeat bits of a language he calls Mow B'jow, then translates, "My birds do not eat flesh - you will never cage them." Occasionally, he dons a blue and gold admiral's coat and marches around with a sword. The key to Barron's charm is that part of him is an artist and another part is a total joker. Told that the admiral's outfit makes him look like Cap'n Crunch, he smiles broadly and says, "That's what it's all about, man."

Parke Chapman, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, remembers his first Phish concert: "They wore goggles and suspenders. The bass player and the guitarist were jumping up and down on trampolines. And the drummer had something on his head - a basket of fruit, I think."

Stage antics aside, the members of Phish are extraordinarily serious students of music, and A Picture of Nectar is a dense, encyclopedic monument to chops. There's some exploratory jazz, some fugues, some straight-ahead country, some early-Genesis-style art rock and a good deal of weirdness, such as "Faht," a Windham Hill parody in which an untuned acoustic guitar is gradually drowned out by a pounding surf and various mating calls.

"We've found that the people who come to see us live are really listening," says singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio. "They understand our music. They get it. People write us letters like 'I really like the fact that "The Squirming Coil" modulates.' People notice that. Not most people of course."

While Blues Traveler has been known to burn down the road with an outsize entourage in tow, Phish is what drummer Jon Fishman calls "the nerd band of rock & roll." That sobriety has served them well. Since forming at the University of Vermont in 1983, Phish has remained staunchly independent. The music-industry publication Pollstar recently wrote: "Way back in early 1990, clubs began reporting concert grosses from a band called Phish. Month after month, they came in, dozens of grosses, virtually all of them sold out shows. It looked a little, well, fishy...[Phish] had a manager in Massachusetts no one ever heard of and that was it. No record label, no booking agency; nothing."

These days there are Phish cover bands. There's a Phish newsletter. And there's Phish.net, a computer network on which fans offer each other bootleg tapes and leave messages like, "Well, out here in Oberlin, when the boys come around, signs start appearing advertising a band that is 'The Hot Jam for the Thinking Man.'"

Phish's audience includes many Grateful Dead types, but like the guys in Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors, the band members aren't complaining, because they know that no one listens to music longer or harder than a Deadhead. "For a long time, the Dead were the only act out there that was taking any chances onstage," says Jon Fishman. "Now, there's a lot of bands jamming and improvising, so the crowd that was so concentrated on the Dead is saying: 'Hey, these guys are cool. And these guys are cool. And these guys are cool. Wow, what a relief.'"

As disparate as their styles are, members of Blues Traveler, Phish, the Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic and the Aquarium Rescue Unit have all jammed together. At a recent Phish concert at Roseland, in Manhattan, John Popper joined the band well after midnight. Phish didn't bother introducing the Traveler frontman - a roar went up the instant he strolled onstage. Instead, it just kept rolling through encores like Led Zeppelin's "Good Times, Bad Times," which was split open to make room for one of Popper's luminous harmonica workouts.

Often, when two of the above groups are appearing on the same bill, they segue their sets - something they're likely to do during this summer's minitour. During a band's last number, the members of another group will come onstage and replace them one by one. The result is that a Spin Doctors tune, say, will slide invisibly into a Blues Traveler tune. When all is said and done, that's what the three bands have in common - the desire to make that new kind of old kind of rock & roll, to make it without interruption and to make it on the run.

"There are two things that Chris says every night," Eric Schenkman explains. "He says, 'This is the last decade of the millennium.' And he says, 'While you're dreaming, we're driving.'"