Friday, November 30, 2007

The Spin Doctors' Chris Barron gets a new start

Yourpix: Photos from the show on Friday night, courtesy of Scott Craig

Chris Barron

Big Entertainment

See Chris Barron perform tonight at Awful Arthur's, downtown Roanoke


See the show

  • Who: Chris Barron and the Time Bandits
  • What: The return of the Spin Doctors’ lead singer
  • Where: Awful Arthur’s, downtown Roanoke
  • When: 9 tonight
  • How much: $5
  • Info: 344-2997. myspace.com/thechrisbarron

The Roanoke Valley is again a starting point for Chris Barron.

Before Barron and his band, the Spin Doctors, hit the top of the charts in the early 1990s, he was just a solo act, out on his first traveling gig.

His friends from Blues Traveler brought him with them to open their show at a Roanoke nightclub. He can't remember which one, though he does remember staying with folks in the Roanoke College dorms, in Salem.

"It was quite an adventure," Barron said.

Fast-forward more than 15 years: Many adventures later, including the temporary loss of his voice, Barron is back in the area with his new band, the Time Bandits. After years of headlining festivals and large concert halls, he's playing Awful Arthur's in downtown Roanoke. Some might think that's a comedown from his old band's platinum heyday. But Barron said he fondly remembers the scenes at small clubs before "Two Princes" and "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" ruled the charts.

Defining 'heyday'

One night outside a New York City nightspot, Spin Doctors guitarist Eric Schenkman turned to Barron and crystallized the idea of being a young, relatively unknown band.

"Eric goes, 'These are the good old days.' And I was like, wow, you know ... whether we end up being super famous or we tank, this is going to be like the heyday," Barron said. "We're gonna look back on these times and think what a great time we were having."

The fun got massive with the release of the Spin Doctors' first album, "Pocket Full of Kryptonite." The band toured the world, performed at Woodstock '94, co-headlined the 1992 H.O.R.D.E. tour (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) -- all on the strength of heavy touring and 10 million sales of the album. "Two Princes," the second single, peaked at No. 7 on Billboard's Hot 100 in 1993.

Then came the dreaded second record. "Turn It Upside Down" sold 1 million copies, but that was a disappointment to Epic Records/Sony Music executives, who dropped the band after its third album, "You've Got to Believe in Something." By that time, a carousel of personnel changes was spinning, and in 2000, with Barron's voice gone, the band broke up.

The original members reunited in 2005 and released the record "Nice Talking to Me." Barron said the record was well received by critics and fans, but the record label, RuffNation Music, broke up about three weeks after the record's release.

RuffNation was "really kind of falling apart ... as the record was being released, so there was really not much of a commercial push on the record," he said. "So that was a bit of a disappointment. ... But that's life."

The Spin Doctors still play together occasionally, but Barron has put together an album's worth of rootsy material with co-writer Jeff Cohen, and is looking forward to playing it for audiences on a 14-date tour of the South that starts at Awful's tonight.

"For me it's really kind of a fun and exciting time in my career, because I'm kind of starting over again." Barron said.

Cohen, a longtime friend, has written songs for a diversity of artists, including Sugarland, Josh Groban, Macy Gray and Nick Lachey. He said that audiences should expect great shows from Barron and his new band.

"There is only one Chris Barron, a true original," Cohen wrote in an e-mail. "Whether in his songwriting or stepping up to the microphone, you know Chris will always give his all."

If these are the new "good old days," Barron didn't get here without a major trial that he thinks of as a defining moment in his life and career.

Recognizing his gift

So what happened in 2000? Barron woke up one day speaking in a whisper. He was diagnosed with a paralyzed right vocal chord. A throat specialist gave him only a 50-50 chance of speaking normally again, much less singing.

After treatments that included acupuncture, herbal medicine and prescription steroids, his voice gradually recovered within the year. The condition was not chronic, and people tell Barron his voice is stronger than ever. He jokes now about having considered such careers as mule skinning and flower arranging. But he remembers that his condition led to an existential crisis.

"It forced me to do a lot of soul-searching, and just kind of look at myself as just a person, not a singer, not somebody who does a certain job, not somebody of a certain status or social position," Barron said. "I just had to kind of think, like OK, you know, if I never talk again normally, if I never sing again normally, who am I going to be? And who have I been all this time that I could sing?

"Without getting into a big, boring thing about my conclusions about that, let's say I came through the other end of that experience a humbler, maybe slightly more thoughtful person."

The experience's other benefit: "I really feel very lucky. You know, talk about singing, or any kind of a talent as a gift. I'd never, really literally thought about it as like a present, something that's bestowed on you, that like a possession can be taken away from you. ... I really realized how much this means to me, and how lucky I am to be doing this for a living."