[H O M E]
A midsummer night moon shimmers over the tribal gathering of 10,000 tourheads at Long Island's Jones Beach, where the Northeast migration of the Great American HORDE - a five-band posse consisting of Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic and Aquarium Rescue Unit - is beginning to peak. Spin Doctors, glowing electric green in the lights, pump up the kryptonite blues as they spiral into another dimension. And here it comes, heralded by the mating call of an unmistakable harmonica: the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't Totally Sick Segue.
Almost by magic, John Popper materializes on stage, sporting a rakish devil-mask and blowing the sweet bejesus out of his harp. One by one, his fellow Blues Travelers merge exuberantly with their New York brethren, creating a two-band entity that careens through Spin-Traveler space before landing on a planet named "G-L-O-R-I-A." The crowd roars its approval, chanting along to the garage-rock classic.
An hour later, at the end of their set, Blues Traveler take off on a gloriously surreal bagpipe-and-drum parade. As this unexpected conga line snakes its way into the far stratospheres of the amphitheater, tie-dyed HORDE-heads hop out of their seats and join the impromptu jam. HORDE, an acronym for Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere, is as much about the fans as it is about the bands. (For more about the tour, see "The Great HORDE Hassle" on page 16.)
And Blues Traveler is a public-access operation whose success evolved from a grassroots community of kindred young spirits. The first of the neo-classic "jam bands" to blaze a trail across America, the Traveler pioneered a sub-subculture that's been gathering the momentum of a real rock'n'roll renaissance. Christened and crystallized during the HORDE tour, it's a movement defined by strong personal voices within the mutual Kingdom of Jam - from Spin Doctors' pop-goes-the-funk style to Phish's cerebral grooves to the swampier-rock of southerners Widespread Panic and ARU. But, above all, it's the Traveler's ferocious forays into bluesedelia and their road-warrior devotion to the endless highway that have struck deep chords into the new generation of '90's college kid who are eagerly reinventing the '60's in their own image.
Blues Traveler go for The Rush, and their blues-rock-jazz collisions are a glyph of the band's persona, as hangin' with the Traveler reveals.
"Hey, you got an extra smoke?" asks guitarist Chan Kinchla, by way of greeting, who then lights up one of my off-brand Viceroys as we gamely plunge into "The HIGH TIMES Interview."
The band has assembled at LoHo Studios, the subterranean site of their now-infamous Dropping Some NYC demo tape that originally attracted Bill Graham (management) and A&M (record company) to Blues Traveler. Three years later, two albums and several hundred thousand tour miles later, they've returned to their fertile muse of this lower Manhattan basement to woodshed new material for their third album. It's also the occasion of bassist Bob Sheehan's 23rd birthday - a three-day marathon kicked off the night before with a glass-smashing invitational at a favorite downtown haunt. Crispy around the edges is the operative leitmotif.
It doesn't take long to get around to a favorite conceit. "We were happy to see ourselves in Billboard and Rolling Stone," Chan offers, "but to be voted number one on the HIGH TIMES Hemp 100-"
"Was an honor we're still talking about to this day," says Popper, completing Chan's thought.
"Our fans were probably too high to write back in after we made it to number one," Sheehan interjects. (The top ranking referred to appeared in the Jan. '92 HT. Since then, Blues Traveler has dropped off the chart, except for a No. 19 ranking in August-Ed.)
There ensues a lively discussion, in which the band collectively agrees
that pot should be legalized, because:
"These are our personal views on the issue," Chan points out, articulating the group consensus as the smell of the sweet herb fills the room. "We don't get on any soapboxes and preach that pot should be legal."
"We like pot," Sheehan adds. "But we don't want to force that on anybody else." Drummer Brendan Hill, a silent cipher among a trio of babblers, lets his Humboldt sweatshirt speak for itself.
To hoist a "We Inhale" banner above the Traveler forcefield would be rather redundant; with their complex chord structures, to-hell-and-back psychedelic rave-ups and out-of-left-field segues, Blues Traveler's music is a living tribute to the stoned-jam mindset. All those hairpin turns, cloverleafs, cul-de-sacs and suicide-clutch landings reflect this modus operandi: Blues Traveler moves in mysterious ways, their secrets better to reveal.
Born in a basement in Princeton, NJ, the Traveler barged their way onto the New York club scene three years ago, primarily working Wetlands Preserve, the seminal basecamp that also helped launch Spin Doctors and continues to nurture young bands, while serving as a community resource center for environmental and political action. But, lately, Wetlands' owner Larry Bloch has been crying the red-ink blues. This spurred Popper, HORDE's designated "poster child" and chief spokesman, to offer his brand of solution to the Wetlands' financial problem: a benefit campaign to "Preserve the Wetlands Preserve." It's an all-in-the-family agenda that reflects the populist spirit of HORDE, as well as the Traveler's ability to create order out of chaos.
Such is clearly the case when the interview session breaks up, and, suddenly, a sub-posse, including John, Chan and myself, splits off for some late-night chow. "Take the next left," Chan advises our designated driver, who's attempting to get us from point A to point B, though the location of point B is still open for debate. "No, no, wait - go straight," John cuts in. Available lefts, rights and forwards are variously suggested as we loop through a labyrinth of alternative routes to possible point Bs, until this short neighborhood run has taken on the problematic dimensions of a full-fledged road trip. I can't resist needling them about this. Chan just grins.
"That's the whole point," he says, as if it should be obvious. "Without problems, there's no creativity. And when there's no problem at hand, sometimes you've just gotta make one up. All in the service of art, of course."
By this reckoning, Blues Traveler's art has been well-served. Although cumulative sales of their debut album Blues Traveler and the follow-up, Travelers and Thieves, are edging toward half a million (a Herculean feat considering that they receive virtually no airplay) and the band's touring operation made a million bucks last year, Blues Traveler are still climbing out from under debts incurred from the expense of carrying a semi's worth of state-of-the-art light and sound equipment on the road. Meanwhile, the group has been sparring with Coors over the uncanny resemblance between the Traveler's "But Anyway" and a recent radio jingle for Coors Lite - a product the band does not endorse in any way," says a peeved Popper.
But Popper, whose brain functions like a bong, takes it all in stride. "If
you're patient enough, you can be stoned all the time," says the group's
heavy-set leader with a light, philosophical wink. "If it makes any sense,
I'll smoke it."
"Ladies and gentlemen, there's some serious shit going down in this country..."
Chris Barron's voice cuts straight through a surging crush of Spin Doctors fans in Syracuse, and even the mindlessly moshing slam-dancers stop for a minute and listen up. It's Day Two of the HORDE tour and Barron is not happy. Earlier in the day, he and his fellow HORDEsters learned that three political groups have been banned from setting up tables and meeting with the tour's fans at the next two venues - New Jersey's Garden State Arts Center and New York's Jones Beach Theater. The three groups are: NORML, NOW and Planned Parenthood.
"Call someone up, man, and tell them that you vote! Say this is America, that we're supposed to have free speech," Barron, the Doctors' lead singer, tells the crowd. "I want to know about birth control. I want to know about abortion. I want to know about marijuana. I want to know why it's not legal. I want to know about women's rights. That's more than half of you here today!" Then the crowd joins Barron as he chants: "I WANNA KNOW! I WANNA KNOW! I WANNA KNOW!"
So do the three banned organizations. "These bands specifically asked Planned Parenthood to present our point of view," notes the quietly seething matron at the PP booth in Syracuse, where such sanctions were not applied. "For the state to step in and say we're not welcome is unconscionable in the midst of an AIDS epidemic and teenage-pregnancy crisis." The New Jersey Highway Department and the New York State Parks Commision - responsible for the facilities in NJ and NY - instituted the bans. "It's a disgrace," says Monica Pratt, a NORML representative in Syracuse. "All of a sudden we're told we can't participate? That's not fascism?"
NORML's presence on Guns 'N Roses' summer tour provoked no incidents. Nor did, as of this writing, the Cannabis Action Network's Hemp Museum on the Lollapalooza tour. NORML's Alan St. Pierre says: "We definitely plan to sue, because what happened at HORDE could happen again."