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Sixties Casualty
by Joe del Priore
Village Voice, New York, NY
Aug 1st, 1991

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 yards.

"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.