“Funny, there’s a part of me that’s never really quite comfortable unless I have a guitar in my hands,” said The Spin Doctors’ Chris Barron as he discussed his October 2017 album, Angels and One-Armed Jugglers, his past and his upcoming gigs at Randy Now’s Man Cave in Bordentown on May 11, and the JCC of Central Jersey in Scotch Plains on May 12.
He continued: “The trick is: A. Don’t make any mistakes; B. If you make a mistake, cover it; or C. Just don’t give a shit if you make a mistake (laughs). The three are not mutually exclusive and at any given moment you can be operating on all three of those principals.”
Barron has been writing songs ever since his youth, in Princeton, but his story and that of The Spin Doctors, leading up to his additional solo career, began in high school, thanks to another very talented classmate.
“I went to high school with John Popper and the guys from Blues Traveler. We were into Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald. We were all musicians but I didn’t play a lot of guitar back then so when we’d jam, I’d do a lot of scatting. Sometimes we’d be playing tunes we knew, but most times it was tunes we wrote, and that became part of my musicality.
“Growing up with John, he turned me onto the blues and a lot of this stuff like Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker and The Blues Brothers. We hadn’t known each other very long. I was like 14 or 15 years old and I asked him about the blues harmonica and he just kind of turned me onto the blues.
“Then I did what I did with various genres of music: I went to the Princeton Record Exchange with my allowance and I had like $4.85 and I’d buy these one dollar blues records. John turned me onto the slick established stuff, and then I’d buy these one dollar records of obscure artists that I really never heard. There was one that really blew my mind, Memphis Blues Again, Vol. II — no relation to Bob Dylan at all but it had these really crusty gutbucket blues artists that I never heard of but it was so visceral. I took it to John and he said it was too raw for him and I was like, ‘Really?’ In my mind I thought that this was the shit and at the time I was writing tunes but was a very rudimentary guitarist. I could figure out those rudimentary parts that were played with absolute conviction and emotionality on the line with topics of songs that were so personal. It was at that point that I realized not every song has to be an emotional epiphany: you can write a song about anything you want.”
However, it didn’t stop there. Using their powers of persuasion and a little peer pressure, Blues Traveler would convince Barron to make a move that would unknowingly begin his journey into rock ‘n’ roll stardom.
“Those guys came to my apartment in Princeton, where I had already written ‘Two Princes’ and ‘Jimmy Olsen’s Blues,’ and they were like, ‘Dude, you’re just wasting away here. We have to get a new apartment and you have to move to the city because it’ll be cheaper if we have an apartment for five guys instead of four guys.’
“The late great Bobby Sheehan dared me to move to New York so I did and then I spent the summer with those guys and then in the fall they were going to a new music school. I told my dad I wanted to go to the new school if he’d help me out with the money but I didn’t want a music degree. I just wanted to go until I meet some guys and put a band together: ‘I’ll work my guts out until then, but once I put a band together, I’m out of there. I want to be in a rock band.’
“He was really cool and backed me and I did one semester and by the end of that semester The Spin Doctors were together. I met Eric (Schenkman) and Aaron (Comess) and we were playing out for money so we all quit school and concentrated on the band full-time. And in my case it’s all because of the Blues Traveler. I can’t overstate how much I owe those guys. John and I don’t get to see each other as much as we’d like but in my reckoning he’s one of my very dearest friends and in any arena of my life, one of the most important figures.”
At the height of their popularity, The Spin Doctors were a top drawing act. They continue to tour today, albeit with a scaled-back schedule. Barron doesn’t seem to mind as it allows time for his solo career and for a welcome change of pace.
“I’m basically doing a lot of stuff on the weekends in my career right now. I haven’t been on an extended tour in quite a long time. Mostly The Spin Doctors go out … in the summer we go out most weekends and then the rest of the year I’m doing solo stuff.
“Yeah, it’s a fun period in my career. I’ve got The Spin Doctors shows, my killer loud rock band with my buddies that I’ve been playing with forever, and then I have this solo acoustic thing that I’ve been doing since I was a kid. I started out as a teenager as just a kid with a guitar, writing tunes and playing them just solo acoustic. That’s like a whole kind of art form all to itself, a venerable kind of art form that goes back to the Mississippi Delta with guys like Robert Johnson and Rev. Gary Davis, these great guitar players and songwriters that I’ve always really admired. So it’s fun, I kind of have two worlds and it makes my career very diverting and interesting. One night I’m up there with a loud rock band with nothing in my hands and I’m just the frontman, just running around Mick Jagger- or Jim Morrison-style. And another night I’m the singer-songwriter with a guitar in my hands, picking tunes.
“One of the things that is really nice about The Spin Doctors — and I get this again and again, and I don’t know what we did, and it wasn’t necessarily intentional — but we somehow struck this universal appeal, and over and over again, people refer to being in the car with their entire family and playing our CD in the car. It was like the CD that everyone could agree on. The kids liked it and the grownups liked it. I get people saying they wanted to listen to Soundgarden while their parents wanted to listen to Pat Boone or whatever, ‘but we all liked The Spin Doctors.’ That’s very gratifying. It’s nice that so many different kinds of people have enjoyed our record.”
So having the best of both worlds is always a beautiful thing. But what happens when your main instrument goes down? In Barron’s case, losing his voice was just the kick in the pants he needed.
“I lost my voice last year and I was planning on making a record. I had this huge backlog of songs and it was time to get these songs out there. You know, songs get mad at you if you let them sit around for too long. I hadn’t made a solo record in a long time, my songs were mad at me, it was time for me to record but I lost my voice. Then when my voice came back, it was really clear that life is short, you never know what’s going to happen, so I thought get in there and get this record done.
“So I kind of came at the project with a new lease on life and kind of came at it with a will but I had a lot of the tunes around. It wasn’t one of those records where it was like, ‘Okay, it’s time to make a record, better write something.’ I had a lot of the material. Some of it I wrote a number of years ago, some I wrote within the last year or two, but the songs were pretty ready to go. So it was the songs. The songs asked me to make the record.”
The result was Angels and One-Armed Jugglers, whose title Barron chuckles about.
“How’s that for a mouthful? It’s kind of a funny story. I wrote that song while driving on the Queensboro Bridge. That line ‘Angels and one-armed jugglers” just kind of came to me and I was driving my Crown Vic Police Interceptor across the bridge and pulled out a pen and started writing it down on my steering wheel. I was thinking about this neighbor of mine back in the day, Adelaide, who is a character in the song. She was just this cool old lady that lived next door to me who had been a Broadway chorus girl. What’s funny is, the whole idea of calling the record that. Everybody — my friends, my wife — all were like, ‘You can’t call your record Angels and One-Armed Jugglers,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah but I can’t come up with anything else and I think it’s kind of a cool title.’ My wife, one morning at breakfast, after three months, was like, ‘It is kind of a cool title,’ and I was like, ‘Right?’ Now that the record is out, everybody loves the title and now that it’s gotten great reviews they’re like, ‘Yeah of course he’s going to call it Angels and One-Armed Jugglers.”
The record is full of twists and turns and has multiple mood changes — just how Barron likes it. So what can those attending a show expect from this man as he goes solo onstage?
“I’m going to perform my record in order, which has been really fun and it has been going over really great. I’m going to perform the record solo acoustic. It’s a full production record; there’s a lot of different productions on the record. Some of it’s like a rock band setup, some is stripped-down and I have one tune called ‘The World According to Garp,’ which is just me on guitar and just a tuba and an accordion. There’s a lot of different things. Some of the songs have strings, some have horns on them and the songs are quite varied in nature. I’ve got some love songs, some wistful stuff and some bombastic rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a pretty well balanced record from that viewpoint.
“So I’m going to come out and do my record and then I’m going to do some Spin Doctors stuff. I’ll do ‘Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong’ and ‘Two Princes’ and the songs that are people’s favorites. But one of the fun things about coming out to see me, if you’re a Spin Doctors fan, is that I do some of the deep cuts that The Spin Doctors never ended up playing live. So you can come out and hear the hits interpreted solo acoustic, which I think that the people seem to enjoy. The audience seems to get a kick out of hearing me interpret these songs differently and they still rock with just me and a guitar, but it’s really stripped down to the original elements of the song. So you can kind of get an insight into the writing, and if you are a Spin Doctors fan you’ll gain some insight into the band.
“I think the cool thing about seeing one of the guys from a band is that you get to see their contribution to the band on display. You get to see the part of the band that he did … and it gives you a bit of perspective.”
For more, visit thechrisbarron.com.