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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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