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It's Okay To Be Happy
Two Bands are Converting a New Generation to Rock and Roll
by Cree McCree
Downtown Express, New York, NY
Oct 1st, 1990

Every once in a while, the human heart colludes with the cosmos in a conspiracy of hope. When that conspiracy takes the form of music - as when the trance-dance reign of New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau and the juke-joint blues of the rural South joined at the hip to spawn the divine, two-headed monster known as rock and roll - it enters the realm of magic.

For the past couple years, a black cat's been stalking the bars of lower Manhattan in the guise of a band called Blues Traveler. Together with their brother band, Spin Doctors, who only emerged last May, they've created the most cohesive live music scene to magnetize a mostly young (15-25), mostly white New York population since the hardcore heyda'y of the early '80s.

But hardcore was a kind of ecstatic rage. This music reinvents the communal spirit of the 60's with voices as original and fresh as the 90's, and has a much wider embrace: the ecstatic transformation of rage into joy, or what Blues Traveler bassist Bobby Sheehan calls "a fabulous festival of fun." It's a concept so antithetical to the ironic distance cultivated by New York trend-mongers that, while inspiring a full-fledged phenomenon, it's been totally missed by the media. It has not, however, been ignored by the music industry.

"The world is their oyster right now," says A&M's Patrick Clifford, the A&R exec who signed Blues Traveler after being "literally devastated" by gigs at such downtown clubs as Mondo Cane, Nightingale's and the Wetlands. "They're revisiting a tradition of incredible live music that connects with people, and people want to be part of it. They already have a strong clan network around the country, and when they play with Spin Doctors, you get five hours of non-stop music that's totally outrageous. They're gonna make a lotta, lotta people happy for a lotta, lotta years."

Young "fellow travelers" now look back nostalgically on Blues Traveler gigs of just last year, when their ranks numbered in the dozens, rather than thousands. "The last 'Gale's gig, the night they got signed, was so hard," recalls Parsons student Kelli Stevens, who was there from day one, when you hugged every person in the room and the band announced your entry from the stage. "I was crying because I was so incredibly proud, but also because it was the end of our Blues Traveler. Now they're everybody's."

It was, of course, the messianic fervor of fans like Kelli that helped make the scene grow as fast and furiously as one of the Traveler's blues/ speed jams. "Both bands snowballed real quickly, partly because of this tribal loyalty," says Tom Hosier, manager of Nightingale's, the downtown dive that was Blues Traveler's base camp before they outgrew its confines. (You can still catch the more recently-formed Spin Doctors there, but not for long.) Older bands like the Worms and the Surreal McCoys, who did the seminal spadework for the Nightingale's scene, are somewhat bemused by all the hoopla.

"We gave these young'uns gigs opening for us," recalls the Worms' Jono Manson, 30, whose work-the-crowd energy inspired both bands. "Now we're lucky if we can get a gig opening for them. But botton line, I'm really happy they caught that wave."

The swelling wave is the kids, says Hosier, "who will go see Blues Traveler or Spin Doctors six or seven nights a week. They'll follow them to New Haven and Philadelphia, even California. The obvious comparison is to the Grateful Dead scene."

There's a definite cross-pollination from the recent influx of youth into the ranks of old-guard Deadheads; a small army of them shot straight from last month's Madison Square Garden show over to the Traveler's Marquee gig. "The Dead aren't gonna be around forever," as one young Deadhead observes. "The Travelers are like my age. They don't sound like the Dead, but it's a similar vibe, and this is like our music, our band."

* * *

Blues Traveler blossomed concurrently with the 60's revival at the Wetlands, which can no longer advertise what was once their house band. At a recent gig, 500 kids waited in the rain hoping to get into an already over-packed house, while the trendy dance club Quick! languished for lack of customers next door. Earlier that night, I caught Rudolf, the infamous club impressario who'd just washed his hands of Quick!, fleeting by like a black-clad ghost. "I haven't had a thought in years," he said with a thin-lipped smile when asked to opine about the tie-dyed encampment outside of Wetlands. "But, yeah, definitely, there's a comeback of live music."

Rudolf's former employee Walter Durkacz, who made his name as a DJ on the old Mudd Club/Danceteria circuit and now books Wetlands bands, is more emphatic. "A lot of the old club people don't understand this is history in the making. These kids are doing the 60's in their own way, for the 90's, and it's like nothing that ever happened before. It's a thing in itself. Blues Traveler is not a retro band in any respect, and neither is Spin Doctors, who are definitely the next link in the chain."

Nor are they alone. Though no other contenders have yet incited the familial zeal of the Traveler/Doctor scene, '60's-vibe bands like Phish and Widespread Panic are kindred spirits. "We've come to realize," says the Traveler's John Popper, "we're part of something that's happening all over the place."

The rapid ascent of Blues Traveler, who just released their A&M debut album, has something to do with Bill Graham, who signed them last year and began booking them to open arena acts like the recent Allman Brothers tour. But the momentum came from the scene itself. Graham was hipped to the band by his son David, a Columbia student, who's now hands-on manager with peer Tom Gruber. And the family babysitter inspired manager David Sonneberg (who put Meatloaf and Jimmy Cliff on the charts) to check out Spin Doctors.

"It was an extremely easy sell," says Sonneberg, who signed them to CBS/Epic Associated within a month. (An EP's due out this Christmas, with an album to follow.) "I brought record people downtown to these little bars, packed with passionately excited fans who knew every word to every song with no record out. We really had our pick of labels."

* * *

It's now time to speak of the source of all this passionate excitement: the music. Blues Traveler, observes Darren Green - creator of the ubiquitous black cat logo, and now Spin Doctors' artist/merchandiser, "is not your average, MTV-ready band. You got a huge fat guy who looks like a combination of John Belushi and Elvis playing the harmonica." But, oh, how that fat guy can play.

John Popper, 23, approaches harmonica the way Hendrix did the guitar, as a vehicle more than an instrument-in-itself, lifting the blues harp to the demonically celestial realms of Charlie Parker. ("That guy's got the groove in his back pocket," said jazz maestro Chico Hamilton upon hearing him play.)

"The ferociousness of the harp grabbed me instantly," recalls Frans Westra, an original fellow traveler known as the Vibe Tribe captain. "And the entire band had this very fluid jam going. What I saw from the beginning was this whole fervor feeling that it's actually ok to be happy."

Over the past year, goosed by non-stop gigging and arena dates that earned them encores opening for Jerry Garcia and the Allman Brothers, the band, always good, has melded into greatness. Chan Kinchla, 21 (guitar); Bobby Sheehan, 22 (bass); and Brendan Hill, 20 (drums) weave effortlessly in and out of the Traveler's canon of original songs, incorporating whatever occurs to them onstage. (Like wrapping "Sweet Talking Hippie" around the Stones' "Miss You" and "Bad to the Bone"). Complex chord collisions come out of nowhere, time compresses space, then slingshots back to "hit you right between the eyes," as Traveler soundman/Panfish producer Richard Vink puts it. "If you don't wanna get hit, you'd better duck."

Of course, that's why you're there: to get hit, to get the rush that inevitably happens when "G-L-O-R-I-A" pops up anthemically, the purest moment of sheer exaltation in this cosmic revival meeting of trance-dance possession. "There is," says Traveler artist Tim Vega, summing it up perfectly, "no separation between you and the band."

What "Gloria" is to Blues Traveler, "House" is to Spin Doctors. We're still in the house of the Lord, but this is a throw-the-Pharisees-out-of-the-temple kind of Lord. Poet laureate/vocalist Chris Barron, 22, composes ad-hoc verses on the spot, but the chorus, joined loudly by the crowd, remains the same: "This is my house, if you don't like it just get outta, get outta, get outta." Barron, a rubber-band performer with a limber tongue, believes, like Popper, "life is a work of art you create yourself. At my best, I serve as an example that you can build your own house. I think the world created us, the scene made the clay, and maybe we're just shaping it."

The Doctors - who include Eric Shenkman, 26 (guitar); Mark White, 28 (bass); and Aaron Comess, 22 (drums) - have a back-beat funk, and an almost hip-hop edginess to their tunes that's very different from the Traveler's blues/rock/jazz collisions. (And which some observers feel may ultimately make them more mainstream radio-ready.) What they share is monster musicianship in which every member of the band has equal weight; a complete commitment to the endless boogie and present time (neither band follows set lists); the jazz-savvy dictums of the New School (where all but Kinchla and White improvised); and, believe it or not, Princeton, N.J.

* * *

It's my theory that aliens landed in button-down, ivied Princeton, where all the Travelers, their road manager and the Doctors' Chris Barron were high school buddies. Barron has another explanation.

"Princeton was like the wall we were banging our heads against; it gave me fuel to show those uptight bastards I could do really well."

The blood-brother bonding cemented among these rebels-with-a-cause became the root of their extended-family ethos, which empowers the music with an open heart.

"I was an outcast, like a lot of us," says private school student Sasha Krienik, an original fellow traveler. "Nobody's taken at face value in this scene; people want to know who you are." Adds scene newcomer Jennifer Lipman, "You don't feel like an outsider coming in. You see people who didn't know where they fit, and made their own place to fit." And if someone's hurting, help is on the way. When Bobby Sheehan's brother, John, was crashburning on drugs, Blues Traveler tossed him a collective lifeline called "Brother John," which remains a rousing crowd sing-along.

"That song was my rehab," says John, who recovered to become one of the most boundlessly energetic presences at gigs. "The band has the power to change a life, and that's a big, big, big thing."

It's also a recurring theme. "The band writing 'Gina' basically changed my life," says Gina, an original fellow traveler immortalized on their album who's now employed as "Fan Relations" liaison. Merchandising chief Tim Vega - who together with Darren Greene reated the visual explosion of poster, T-shirt, and mural art integral to the scene's proliferation - echoes this sentiment: "Blues Traveler basially changed my life."

The Traveler's entire workforce, which now numbers an even dozen, are all familial fans; like Spin Doctors' road manager/troubleshooter Jason Richardson, they began as volunteer equipment-schleppers and flyer-mongers.

"We're just a new extension of an old family," believes flutist Roger Fox, who sits in regularly with both bands and is, at 30, their elder statesman. "The family's been around for thousands of years."

Like any family, old or new, it's also had its downside. "When the family was its strongest, all of us, except for Blues Traveler, who had night jobs, were blowing off our lives in a big way," recalls Sasha, who's now cracking the books to catch up to her college aspirations. "But some nights were blessed. I appreciate all the life lessons."

And the Traveler's mounting success has brought an inevitable dilution of the old intimacy with what Sasha calls "superficial pseudo-hippiness."

"There's always a trade," agrees Popper. "Soon it will become schlocky like the last scene that was here in the '60s, and then another scene will happen. But I think the heart's gonna last a very long time 'cause there's a genuine need for good music."

* * *

During a Traveler/Doctors outdoor show in Greenwich, timewarped amid 2500 fans half my age, I had a revelation: it's all in the segue, which these guys have made an art form, seamlessly shifting from band to band so the music never stops. Maybe this whole '60s/'90s thing is just a 20-year segue. "Always stretch a segue," laughs Popper when I advance this theory. And Chris Barron - who was conceived in 1968 on a boat carrying his father to a Pearl Harbor stopover en route to Vietnam - spins it out to the stars and back.

"All of us born at that time have got to have the '60s in our subconscious, and there was a lot of genius going on in the '60s. Genius isn't a personal thing. When you write a poem about the moon, the moon has a share in it, and all the poets before you, and everything you ever heard and ever saw. It's not the individuals, it's the artistic-tide that's important.

"We have to be careful that people like Dan Quayle don't turn the '60s into just tie-dyed T-shirts. It's got to be more than dye in a bucket. There has to be a tie."