The Marshall Tucker Band has just concluded its set at the
fourth annual Suntan Jam in Butler, New Jersey, one recent
Sunday, flowing through "Can't You See," "Heard it
in a Love Song," and others I don't remember. The 5000 or so
beach-clad denizens dance, drink, talk, throw Frisbees, suck on
the prevalent mellowness hovering everywhere.
I take out my camera, check the lighting from different angles.
With my zoom lens I can get some good shots of both stage and
crowd from where I'm sitting. As I look through the viewfinder I
feel a heavy hand on my shoulder.
"What's up with the slick camera?" I look up into the
slitty eyes of a 200 pounder. "Why you takin' my picture??"
I tried to explain that I was just checking the lighting.
"Gimme that camera." I hand it over. He looks through
the viewfinder at the stage. "Looks like you're focused in
pretty good." Hands me back the thing. Walks back to the
woman he was hitting on. I breathe again. Not two minutes later
one of many blue-shirted young security guards approaches and
barks, "If I come back and see that camera
out I'm taking the film. No unauthorized picture taking."
So much for mellow.
The kid sprawled next to me across the picnic table, caressed by
his girlfriend, soused into semiconsciousness, refuses my offer
of Tylenol. I feel embarrassed for trying. I get into it with an
older type, reminiscing about hitchhiking to concerts, the
Fillmore, great jams we've seen. I ask him if he's seen Blues
Traveler and he shakes his head. "Time machine stuff,"
I inform him. "You'll like it."
Massive John Popper wears a tan fedora, patterned violet shirt,
sneakers, and green ammo pouches draped around his neck. Looks
like a tourist at Disneyworld's new Desert Storm Reenactment
Pavilion. His once thick muttonchops have been trimmed to hedge
size, a faint goatee and 'stache adorn his beefy face. He
immediately dedicates the set to the "whole U.S.A."
Blues Traveler, early twenties, out of Princeton High, knows its
strength, which is bash blues, played long, loud and brash.
Popper hunches over like a Macy's balloon doubling up on itself,
shoves his harmonica so tightly against his mouth he appears to
be performing oral surgery on himself. His eyes squeeze shut as
though attacked by head lice. His body jiggles wildly, like Boy
Scouts trapped in a tent with killer bees.
Easy to see why BT has built a growing following. Their music
combines '60s innocence, '70s bacchanalia, '80s cynicism and '90s
alienation. "In this vale of toil and sin, you're stuck in a
race you just can't win/Take a look around and it's so
obscene/But that's the way it is so you gotta get mean." And
they jam the piss out of an amoeba. None of their stuff live
lasts less than eight minutes. You can't understand a damn lyric,
but no one gives a shit. A typical BT sojourn: Popper
machine-guns a flurry of lightning phrases that squeal upward and
climax with nipple-hardening siren cries, an entire family of
bats torched to cinders. Guitarist Chan Kinchla whips his hair
around like Peter Frampton shoved into a Cuisinart, spews out
notes that careen around corners with blowtorches that ignite
other ideas, every possible combination without predictability,
yet paced, dramatic, sensual - Hendrix after swallowing rat
poison. He and Popper trade licks, impregnate each other, two
starving, horny jackals yowling across a desert of sound. Bobby
Sheehan fist-fucks the bass line, Brendan Hill drums like a man
trying to escape a rock slide, sax man Arnie Lawrence (when
available) creates his own torture chamber of sound, and at the
New Year's Eve gig at Roseland, keyboardist Merl Saunders joined
in the carnage. In full gear, BT plays with enough ferocity to
make Sherman's March look like a rain-soaked Mummers Parade.
BT fans don't bop. They involuntarily spasm. Here, most dressed
skimpily, whirled, bumped and bounced like cactus-humping demons
in heat. In cooler weather the wardrobe encompasses overalls, scarves,
bandanas, psychedelic vests, peasant skirts, pins in nostrils, bare feet,
cheap jewelry, hats with dead furry animals attached. I asked one
kid why he was into the band. "THEY JAAAM!" he
ejaculated. This day, the Wall of Whomp continues well into a
second hour, including something from the upcoming work,
"Sweet Pain," featuring agonized vocals from Popper and
a Kinchla solo that peeled the skin off everyone within 300
"But Anyway," their most popular piece, gets Popper
pumping like a giant rogue Muppet. We are knee-deep in body
fluids, as he half-scats, half-yodels a call and response, like
in "Gloria" earlier in the set. Salacious slut-puppies
of both sexes are sprayed with hot coals disguised as 16th notes
as Popper opens fire indiscriminately.
Horrors! In the midst of one stratospheric note, the top part of
Popper's head explodes, smoke, pus and white stuff spurts out.
His torso, still clutching a harmonica, careens across the stage,
knocking over the amps, short-circuiting wiring. Somehow we sense
the gig is over.
A guy stumbles by in a shirt that says, "We'll get along
fine as soon as you realize I'm God."
Up on stage Popper's body twitches. God's not dead, he's just
unconscious. The political passion of the '60s has been
supplanted by Coors and paintball warriors. Meanwhile, the era's
indigent flower children are reincarnated in BT followers who've
already swiped Popper's sneakers and picked his pockets. Wish I
could have photographed it.
Blues Traveler will be at Wetlands August 15th.