31 December 2006

Review: Widespread Panic

Philips Arena, Atlanta, GA 30 December 2006

Hard to believe it's been 6 years since our last Widespread Panic New Year's shows, but life happens and we were able to finally extract ourselves out of the woodwork and get down to Atlanta for a couple doses of Jimmy Herring and crew. I have no problem saying that -- it's both amazing and no surprise how Mr Herring has made quick work and claimed this band as his own

For Saturday's penultimate show, the crowd buzz was full of anticipation as usual. Of course, the first thing we notice is the stage decorations. A strange mishmash of images as a gigantic tie-dyed sun sits stage center behind Todd with a couple clouds threatening to eclipse it. As you move upwards there are pastel planets: Jupiter and Saturn (with the ring made of a circle of lighting rig) as well as a crescent moon with the Man in the Moon smiling down. Further up are two blue-green rhombuses pock-marked to look like asteroids, I guess, they kind of just look like cubes of junk. Then, floating between all these, are three cupid-like creatures pointing arrows down toward the stage.

Definitely a strange mix of imagery that sort of ties together, but it all makes sense when the band takes the stage and somewhat unexpectedly (for me, at least) launches the night with Conrad. So appropriate for so many reasons: this band has been reborn as a big-winged butterfly with Jimmy on lead guitar; not only that but they've actually found that "little room to fly" with him on board. No wonder they've surrounded the stage with interstellar objects -- the sky is the limit.

Still, as hot as Jimmy's guitar was from the get-go, the first couple songs were a little shaky. The sound wasn't totally synced up to my liking and the band wasn't quite jellin' for the first 30 minutes or so. The mix was really weird, every time Jojo or Sunny played a lick it sounded 10x louder than anything else -- well, this was either the mix or the fact that everything they were doing sounded so out of place. Jojo has regressed. There, I've said it. Even the Fishwater was pretty flat, with a lot of pedestrian percussion sections interlaced. Too soon in the show for the band to really take it. The first set was kind of throwaway up to Travelin' Man which is just not a very good song in my opinion: it's like the worst of Traveling Light and Ramblin' Man mashed together.

But (oh, there's always a "but") -- this is where the magic of Herring came into play, where those planets started to make sense. Jimmy brings a wonderful combination of naiveté and aggressiveness to the Panic repertoire: he doesn't really know what some of the material should do or where it should go, but he's not afraid to take the reins and lead it to where he thinks it should go. So there are moments where he taffy-pulls a regular number, slowing things down or speeding things up, stretching thin to the point of breaking and then pushing things back together. This only works because the band is so tight on its own and they can follow his lead without fear of the proverbial train wreck. This is particularly true of Dave and Todd who seem to be totally locked into everything Jimmy is trying to do.

And so it was, petering out of Travelin' Man that Jimmy laid claim to the outro jam and the audience was taken to those planets above them. Previous incarnations of Widespread were more about the Terra Firma -- the dirty and the gritty, but now the music has a new direction: ionosphere, stratosphere and beyond. This jam was a heavenly Phil-Lesh-Quintet-esque entity of its own, floating in the upper decks of Philips Arena. Gorgeous, full-band jamming (with John Keane bringing tasteful ethereality on the pedal steel) that had no geography or political orientation -- it belonged neither to the song before it or the song that would follow; it just was. Until that is, it ever so slowly made its way toward C. Brown. The segue was long, drawn out and nearly perfect, as good a segue I've seen from any band, let alone Widespread Panic, in many, many years. While later on in the night the second set would overshadow this moment, it was certainly the highlight of the night.

The first set ended with powerful combo of Walkin' > All Time Low and it was here that I remembered why I ditched the kids and hopped a flight to Atlanta. Setlist, music, jams, guests -- it's all well and good, but nothing -- absolutely nothing -- beats the one-brained energy of the crowd at a "big" Panic show. When 10,000+ people erupt as one at random points in a song, an ecstatic eruption of noise, it is a thing to behold. This last doublet of the set was punctuated by these moments, particularly during ATL which featured much fist-pumping and body shaking.

By the time the second set started up, the sound seemed to be dialed in and both the band and audience were totally lubricated and ready to go. The setlist on its face is not that important when considering this set, believe me, it was da heat. Timezones was decent, but the North featured a new level of energy with Herring and Schools leading a middle jam that I didn't know this song had in it. I thought they were going into something else, but they masterfully brought it back to North again. Dare I say it was the best North ever? (I could definitely have done without a second Jerry Joseph tune, though.) I can say that about Blackout as well, as Derek Trucks came out to shred all over this lump of shit. Greatness can be relative, and relative to a vanilla version, this thing was chocolate chip cookie dough. Derek took no fewer than 3 shreddy slide solos and Jimmy and JB each added their own... Blackout Blues became just an excuse for a good old fashioned guitar party.

Sure, I was disappointed when Derek left after just that song, but what followed made up for it plenty. Diner > Papa's Home can mean many things on a given night, but last night it meant nearly 30 minutes of some of the most intense guitar playing I've ever seen. Words can't really describe the relentless playing of Jimmy Herring during this mountain of music. He stuffed every second of time with as many notes as humanly possible like clowns getting crammed into a comically small automobile. Climax after climax after climax through this Diner -- I don't think I've made my body dance that hard in a long while. The band was totally on board as well and I haven't heard them as tight in too many years. When the jam out of Diner was bubbling over, I was sure they were going into drums for some relief, but instead they expertly laid down into another monster: Papa's Home. Panic was pulling the equivalent of 4-minute miles over a marathon, total high octane rock and roll.

Drums finally broke the tension, but not before a nice long outro jam with Dave leading Jimmy and the drummers along. Trivia alert: I didn't think it was humanly possible, but I believe Sunny and Todd played an exact note-for-note replica of Drums from 4/11/2000.

I've waited a long time to hear Panic play some Beatles and I finally got my wish when they busted into the second ever I Want You (She's So Heavy) during the post-drums cool down. I won't argue that there was anything sublime about this version, the band seemed a bit tentative around the edges of this one, like they weren't sure exactly what they wanted to do with it. JB seemed particularly tentative actually stopping the song before John Keane, who was on guitar at this point, coaxed him to go around a couple more times. Keane made the most of it, ripping into a very nice solo of his own. Jimmy was content to lay back and let John really take over and he did. Give was a nice way to end the show with some more of the old ass-shaking/fist-pumping combo the crowd had been working on all night.

At this point, I'd have rated the show "average" with some real bona fide highlights in there and bonus points for the fact that the second set was pretty darn long (not to mention brutally tiring). When I saw them setting up Derek's amp again for the encore, I knew we had a chance to put a little garnish on this one and make it a more special NYE warm-up. Sure enough, Derek came out, but he brought his better half with him and the octet launched into our second above-average cover breakout: Jimi Hendrix's Little Wing. Sweet sweet sweetness, this totally took that bad taste of the Blackout-and-done sit-in from earlier in the night. JB and Susan T took turns with the vocals turning Jimi's masterpiece into a beautiful duet. Derek and Jimmy did the same with the guitar leads and the whole collective flowed easily around the music. Although the show had, by this time, trespassed into the next day, the boys seemed to be resolved to empty their revolvers of any more ammo playing not one, not two, but three more songs. A nice soulful This Part of Town, where, yes I could see the sun from where I was standing and an old fashioned Take Out > Porch where the man in the moon was hanging right overhead, most certainly a musician and most certainly smiling.

I: Conrad > Climb To Safety, Fishwaer, Chest Fever*> Travelin Man* >> C. Brown** > Walkin* > All Time Low

Time Zones**, North > Pilgrims > Blackout***, Diner >> Jam > Papa's Home > Jam > Bust It Big > I Want You (She's So Heavy)* > Give*

E: Little Wing**** > This Part Of Town, The Take Out** > Porch Song**

* w/ John Keane on guitar
** w/ John Keane on pedal steel
*** w/ Derek Trucks on slide guitar
**** w/ Derek Trucks on slide guitarand Susan Tedeschi on vocals

Part two tonight...


Tutu said...

Even with "shaky" songs I still wish I was there. Great review and can't wait for tonight's show review.

trieke said...

I got to see panic last night for the first time in 3 yrs and must say they did not disappoint. The show tonight(nye) would be great to see. It was a pretty nice warm up for tonight's show. Great version of Walkin' really got it going! Can't wait to read what I'll miss tonight!kkhgvij

Anonymous said...

Drums from 4/11/2000? Holy shit!

-Bob Frapples