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Spin Doctors

Remembered fondly for at least two classy blues-inflected hit songs, `Two Princes’ and `Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong’, American trad rockers SPIN DOCTORS weaved their magic in the first half of the 90s, rivalling a raft of grunge acts. Spiritually at least, comparisons could be made to GRATEFUL DEAD and STEVE MILLER BAND, while the group forged a central part of the new wave of jam-friendly combos that took in PHISH and the affiliated BLUES TRAVELER.
Formed in 1988, New York City, NY, both bearded singer Chris Barron and guitarist Eric Schenkman had performed as the Trucking Company band, initially alongside John Popper (soon-to-be a BLUES TRAVELER exponent): all students from the New School of Jazz in New York. With drummer Aaron Comess and bassist Mark White completing the quartet by spring ‘89, SPIN DOCTORS embarked on a heavy touring schedule, cementing their good-time mesh of funky 70s-style pop-blues while duly signing to Epic Records along the way.
Fittingly, the band was introduced to the record buying public by way of a concert set, UP FOR GRABS… LIVE (1991) {*5}, an unorthodox “mini/EP” kick-start by any standards, and recorded at Wetlands, New York, September 27, 1990.
Fuelled by prevalent support for the group’s bona fide debut dispatch, the studio POCKET FULL OF KRYPTONITE (1991) {*8}, and subsequent MTV coverage of one its tracks-turned-Top-20-single, `Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong’, SPIN DOCTORS were slowly but surely becoming their nation’s next-big-thing. By the time a cash-in HOMEBELLY GROOVE… LIVE {*6} jam album – including tracks from “Grabs” – hit the shops in November ’92, “Kryptonite” was powering its way into the higher echelons of the Billboard 200. And when the inanely catchy `Two Princes’ followed the studio set up the charts, there was only one obstacle in their way – the UK public.
March 1993 finally saw “Kryptonite” explode overseas. Bolstered by the aforesaid US nuggets belatedly turning gold in Britain; although `Little Miss…’ flopped first time around, the album rocketed into the Top 3. To a lesser extent, `Jimmy Olsen’s Blues’, also made moderate inroads into both US/UK charts, whilst acolytes of the ‘Doctor’s jam-addled heritage would be in awe of their mind-blowing wig-out finale, `Shinbone Alley – Hard To Exist’. The rootsy, funk-rock album drew inevitable comparisons to prime STEVE MILLER BAND. However in the surging `What Time Is It?’ a meld of The J.B.’s and BACHMAN-TURNER OVERDRIVE sprang to mind.
While Kryptonite sold well over two million copies worldwide, SPIN DOCTORS’ difficult studio sophomore set, TURN IT UPSIDE DOWN (1994) {*5} was a relative damp squib. Ironically, it would be in Britain that Top 3 sales figures would overshadow its lowly home soil Top 30 status. Despite three minor/moderate hits, `Cleopatra’s Cat’, `You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast’ and `Mary Jane’ (b/w: a corny cover of `Woodstock’), that swayed between the now stormy transatlantic sea-change, in a just a short space of time SPIN DOCTORS had went from healthy heroes to zenith zeroes.
Worse to come was their third studio set, YOU’VE GOT TO BELIEVE IN SOMETHING (1996) {*4}, a failure both critically and commercially. Schenkman had now moved aside for Anthony Krizan, though his tenure was cut short soon after its release; Eran Tabib being his replacement after they’d spread their wings into the pop market with a cover of K.C. & THE SUNSHINE BAND’s `That’s The Way (I Like It)’, spawned from the “Space Jam” movie.
Tabib had been joined by keyboardist Ivan Neville (ex-NEVILLE BROTHERS), but without the departing White (as of 1998), the quartet signed to Uptown-Universal for another let-down, HERE COMES THE BRIDE (1999) {*4}.
Then, in August 1999, it was announced that Chris Barron could no longer sing due to a rare disease that paralysed his vocal chords; in effect the band had to take a hiatus. After a few test solo gigs with his back-up band, Give Daddy Five, the following March, the slow journey for Barron and the SPIN DOCTORS’ recovery culminated in the original band’s re-formation in September 2001.
Though it took four further years for comeback fifth set, NICE TALKING TO ME (2005) {*5}, at least the once-mighty outfit were in recovery mode. Producer Matt Wallace tried in vain to resurrect their halcyon days, but in `My Problem Now’ and `Tonight You Steal Me Away’, stalwart fans could rail against the reviewers who’d described Barron as a “hippie Muppet”.
Eight long years down the line, SPIN DOCTORS were ready to set out their musical manifesto on the rather bluesy affair of self-scribed IF THE RIVER WAS WHISKEY (2013) {*7}. And notwithstanding comparisons to old pals act, BLUES TRAVELER, Barron and Co’s cure had always been right there under their noses, blocked between the woods and the trees so to speak. The four princes of jam-rock had now come full circle, and with their prescriptions in hand, there was no doubting that in freewheeling tracks such as `Some Other Man Instead’, `About A Train’, `Scotch & Water Blues’ and the title track, the band were enjoying a resurgence of sorts.
A live set, SONGS FROM THE ROAD (2015) {*6} – recorded October 2013 in Bonn, Germany (where they’d previously signed to Ruf Records) – combined all aspects of the band’s repertoire, and it was encouraging to find out just how magnificent `Two Princes’ et al came across next to their newfound blues material.
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD // rev-up MCS Sep2019

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