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Blues Traveler's Positive Spin
by Steve Hochman
Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA
May 18th, 1993

John Popper, the lead singer and harmonica player for the band Blues Traveler, admits to having mixed emotions about the success of his friends in the group the Spin Doctors.

After all, his band has been at it longer and, in fact, he is pretty much responsible for the Spin Doctors forming and actually got the band its start playing in New York bars and clubs before going on to national success. But it's the Spin Doctors, not Popper's band, that had the Top 10 hit and the cover of Rolling Stone.

"There was something in the Rolling Stone article about them that I didn't like reading," he says. "It said the Spin Doctors have surpassed Blues Traveler, and I didn't like reading it because it was true. Like they got a big tour bus first and things like that. We didn't know how to feel at first."

Ultimately, Popper's jealousy gave way to pride.

"It was like your little brother growing up," he says. "At first I didn't take it seriously. And then you realize he's a man and has his own ideas and strengths."

And, ultimately, the Spin Doctors helped bring more attention to Blues Traveler, which plays Wednesday at the Palace. The Spin Doctors have regularly shared the credit, talking about the group as an inspiration in interviews and showing that both bands' loose, jam-based rock has a place on radio and MTV. And now Blues Traveler's third album, Save His Soul, is off to a good start, with the video for the single "Conquer Me" an MTV regular.

"The Spin Doctors's success kinda kicked a few doors open for us," Popper says. "It made our record company take us a little more seriously quicker, and MTV was happy to take our video."

But the best thing about the Spin Doctors' fortune, says Popper, 26, is that it proves his talent as catalyst.

"I love to start things," he says.

Popper expanded that role last summer as the prime mover of a tour of like-minded bands under the banner of H.O.R.D.E., which stands for Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere, co-headlined by his band and the Spin Doctors. That enterprise - sort of a "Lollapalooza" for the peace-and-love crowd instead of the pierced-anatomy set - capitalized on the followings the bands had picked up through live shows, a fan base that has been compared to, and in fact overlaps with, the Grateful Dead's noted Deadhead contingent.

In the case of Blues Traveler, the following was built in a period of three years of almost constant touring, the only real recess coming earlier this year when the band scheduled six months to record the new album. The idea was to try to place more emphasis on record-making and songwriting, where the previous records stressed the free-flow nature of the band's shows.

That period was extended a month after Popper suffered a serious broken leg in a motorcycle accident, although his love of the road led him to return to touring as soon as possible. He's still off his feet, giving rise to the band calling the current trek the "Steel Wheelchair Tour."

The strength of that fan base was proven as none of last year's H.O.R.D.E. bands had yet to have any appreciable radio or TV exposure - this was before the Spin Doctors became an MTV staple - yet still was able to fill outdoor theaters in some markets with as many as 10,000 people.

This year Blues Traveler will headline another H.O.R.D.E., with Big Head Todd & the Monsters, the Samples and Widespread Panic - all bands that have substantial regional followings, but have yet to break nationwide - set as regulars, with Phish among those who will join on for segments of the tour.

The 1993 H.O.R.D.E. is booked in more cities (none so far in Southern California) and even larger venues - generally in the 10,000- to 15,000-seat range, with a "Lollapalooza"-like concourse featuring such activities as a virtual-reality machine and hot-air balloons. Plans are for the Allman Brothers Band to join as guest headliner on a few dates, and there's even talk of a Toronto show featuring Pearl Jam and Neil Young, but the emphasis is on acts without mega-star status.

"When a tour like that, with relatively unknown acts, can do that well last year, it makes the people who put it together look like geniuses," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the trade magazine Pollstar, which tracks concert business. "But the acts on H.O.R.D.E. tour all the time and are able to deliver a good live show and that's a great way to build a fan base."

Says David Frey, Blues Traveler's manager, "None of these bands are driven by hit songs and videos, per se. Though a hit could be something that's more of an aftereffect of going out and playing live."

The irony is that success on the road has helped make Blues Traveler an MTV band, just like the Spin Doctors did. And Popper, naturally has mixed feelings about that, too.

"MTV is such a commercial blitz that a lot of our fans would not watch it," he says. "I have a lot of problem selling things to our fans. But video and radio is a way to get to fans who wouldn't ordinarily see us. So I have a problem with that, as long as we can keep playing real music, it's fine with me."