By BRIAN BINGAMAN
They made living in the ’90s fun, with an affable hippie image and a madcap, jam band fusion of rock, funk and blues.
Twenty-three years after Spin Doctors burst onto the scene with the album “Pocket Full of Kryptonite,” the New York band is touring behind a new assemblage of original traditional blues songs called “If The River Was Whiskey.”
“It has this ramshackle, dangerous feel to it,” said lead singer Chris Barron, who at age 46 is sporting a clean cut, moustached look.
Barron, guitarist Eric Schenkman, bassist Mark White and drummer Aaron Comess are set to play the Musikfest Cafe at SteelStacks in Bethlehem July 25.
When asked how songs like “Scotch and Water Blues,” “Some Other Man Instead” and “What My Love?” were sounding next to the ubiquitous hits from the early ’90s “Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” (which was written about Barron’s shopaholic ex-stepmother) in concert, Barron likened the blues to a skeleton key that connects the metaphorical tumblers of the Spin Doctors saga.
“We started out as a blues band,” Barron said, pointing out that the first track on “Pocket Full of Kryptonite” is, after all, titled “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues.”
To be a working band in New York City circa 1988, the only way to earn good money was to play the blues bars, he said. At that time, the club managers insisted the bands play blues cover songs.
“We wrote an assortment of crusty, old-sounding blues, pretended they were other people’s songs, and we totally got away with it,” Barron said.
Fast forward to concerts celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Pocket Full of Kryptonite” in 2011, and it was as if someone hit the auto rewind button instead. The hardcore fans were calling for the songs from the blues bar days. Barron called them “deep cuts we hadn’t played since 1990 or 1991” that triggered vivid sensory memories, “like when you find your grandfather’s old coat. You smell the sleeve and you’re there with your grandfather on a Sunday afternoon in his Peugot,” he said.
Writing and recording “If The River Was Whiskey” “made us feel like the band we were before it took off,” said Barron.
When it took off was some time in 1992, MTV couldn’t get enough of “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” and Barron’s beard, shaggy locks and “skinny, gawky kid from Princeton” look rendered him ridiculously recognizable in public.
“When we were selling 50,000 records a week, I’d be going to the mall to buy underwear and end up signing autographs for three hours,” he said.
Although Barron’s grateful for the mainstream success, he notes that audiences that see the band today are pleasantly surprised to learn that “there’s a lot more to this band than the hits.” At that point, he did an impression of a British fan that came to a show in London just expecting a trip down memory lane, but was so taken by the blues songs that he went out of his way to introduce himself after the show was over.
Performing “Two Princes” doesn’t ever get old, said Barron, because “we never play it quite the same way twice” — sometimes incorporating changes so subtle that only the band hears them.
However, that was not the feeling in the late ’90s, as Spin Doctors were hurtling toward a break up. Possessing a clever way with words, Barron referred to that time as a “seething cauldron of mutiny and resentment,” but in a brotherly sort of way. “You take four dogs, good dogs, nice dogs … that look up and smell your hand and are happy to see you. You put them in a box and drive them around the country 20 times without a break and they’re going to be at each other’s throats,” he said.
After the band had time apart and started families (Barron even recorded and performed solo), the Spin Doctors, who were in their 20s in the ’90s, found the old magic as 40-somethings.
“They’re the only dudes on earth I will ever play that way with. I’ve been around the world with those guys. I love being in Spin Doctors because of everything we’ve done together,” said Barron, who has also been working with a Norwegian rock/soul/country outfit called The Canoes and dabbling in writing songs for the musical theater stage.
Barron believes so much in “If the River Was Whiskey” that it comes with a money back guarantee. “If you buy it and you don’t think it’s great, I will reach into my wallet and personally give you your money back,” he said.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Spin Doctors in concert.
WHEN: 8 p.m. July 25.
WHERE: Musikfest Cafe at SteelStacks, 101 Founders Way, Bethlehem.
INFO: Call (610) 332-3378 or visit www.artsquest.org.