02 January 2007

Review: Widespread Panic NYE

Philips Arena, Atlanta, GA 31 December 2006

(Click here for review of Saturday show)

Music is memories. Music is memories.

Sunday night at the Philips was like a homemade shelf containing years worth of painstakingly collected souvenir spoons. Each moment -- the people around us, the songs played, the shots of whiskey -- came weighted with a memory of Panic shows past. The semi-acoustic Driving Song brought me back to the fall of 1992 when my Deadhead roommate and I repeatedly blasted the copy of Space Wrangler I'd gotten in town for 99 cents; the Airplane to the spring of 1995 when the band's major leap forward was punctuated by the addition of wild, twisting jams coming out of that tune; the Fixin' To Die with Jimmy Herring and Col. Bruce on stage took me back to the first song I ever saw or heard the band play, one of those wild ARU>WSP jams from the HORDE... and on and on and on.

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself... this New Year's Eve show was more than just another nostalgia trip, it was another all-night bonfire on the beach. If I could sum the night's 3 sets up nicely it would be: Pure Panic. Plain and simple. There was no gimmick, no twists, no chicanery, no real surprises even. Several places during the night you might have expected one of those wild setlist-making sandwiches (e.g. Driving, Surprise Valley, Chilly) and not one was split up. Likewise, there were many moments where John Keane might have been brought up on stage for better or worse and yet not a peep. Heck, there was a 15 minute portion of the third set that was just sitting there for the taking by a long, meaningless drum section and yet: NO DRUMS! (woohoo!!!).

Well, what was there, then, you might ask?? How 'bout a whole heaping helping of j-a-m JAMMING. Somewhere along the way, the term "jamband" and the genre enfolded therein got a bit of a stigma attached to it. Widespread Panic (and Jimmy Herring) have been around before that label existed and seem to be on their way to outlasting it, so I am happy to report that they are flying their freak flag and jamming the shit out of everything that comes their way... to fine effect, I might add.

But still... getting ahead of myself. Set I: JB is seated w/ acoustic guitar, Jimmy Herring is seated(see photo). Everyone else is sitting or standing at their usual spot. I can't get a real good look at the guitar Herring is playing, but when I hear it, it's like a crisp Dickey-Betts-playing-acoustic tone. That was a treat. The Wish You Were Here was especially nice (see YouTube of the singalong), especially when weighing all the old friends we were hanging with -- people we literally haven't seen in 5+ years -- and thinking of some that weren't there. The whole set was just a solid warm-up, I have no adjective-laden descriptives to add to that. I might add that there was a spot in there, possibly Wondering, where the band kind of brain-freezed into a serious lapse. Certainly the most heinous of several slip-ups during the two nights.

The second set, though, sheesh! Bowlegged Woman > Surprise Valley was utter nonsense -- the best kind possible, of course. In all honesty, the 2nd and 3rd sets were a complete haze of deep, intense jamming and it'll be hard for me to pick out highlights. The whole night, actually, from the moment I walked into the arena to the steps out the door was like small pieces of one larger event. Like the 6 hours I spent in Philips Arena - the bridge between last year and this one - was split into infinitesimal slices, each with its own unique signature, flavor, highlights, and they all sort of fit together into a drunken continuum. Sure, you're sitting there reading this thinking that this is just the two bottles of Makers Mark I was able to sneak in lodged in the crotch of my jeans talking, and maybe you're right.

Still, though, the night was a wave of wonderful energy and the driving force, the wavefront, if you will, was the trio of John Bell, Dave Schools and Jimmy Herring. That first blast of bass of Bowlegged, these three guys were locked in -- to each other and the fierce jams they were constantly leading. The big surprise here was JB who, I feel, has sort of played a backseat role with his guitar playing since Keane has been the third guy. Not having JK around was a real push behind that rhythm guitar we've known all along that JB could wield. He was really on fire and those three six-stringers were all over it. Of course, Jimmy and Dave have been in that zone for a while now, and this has lead to the old Panic material getting some serious new vitality. The Bowlegged > Surprise was just the first of many brain-melters along the way.

Even Jojo was on board, laying low when the big guns were having at it up front, but adding just the right amount of spice the rest of the way. Because the all-out jamming was so ubiquitous Sunday night, my memory of specific moments is a bit shaky, but I believe it was during some of the most out-there moments of Surprise Valley that Jojo quite expertly laid down a handful of James Brown licks. We'd had our share of (the other) JB both nights going into and out of sets for between-set dance party moments, but nothing in the shows themselves. Jojo got it going on, mixing in, what I believe were "Get On the Good Foot" (amongst probable others) teases all over this jam. He kept at it, pushing it a little here and a little bit there, but always underneath some wild-and-crazy-guys stuff from Dave and Jimmy. It was, I must admit, pretty kick ass, and probably the coolest thing I've heard from John Hermann in a long while. Again, I could be off by even hours on when this all took place, but rest assured it did happen.

Certainly there was more... much more. The Airplane itself was novel-worthy. There are songs Jimmy was meant to play, where he, with some serious ingenuity, is able to "play" Mikey Houser at the same time he is 100% Jimmy Herring. Surprise Valley is one of these, Airplane is another. There are many more and it seems that those that he doesn't quite have that flair for, he soon will. I don't know how else to describe the magic he is bringing to this band right now other than to say: go see some Widespread Panic. Anyway, I digress, the jam out of Airplane was unbelievable, otherworldly, intergenerationally intergalactic.... One of my (admittedly long list of) favorite things about Widespread Panic is their ability to just get me utterly lost in their jams. They sink into something good and I just can't remember where we came from. The music seems to get into my blood like any other intoxicant and just spin me dizzy. This second set was awash in a haze of "where did we come from?" and "where are we going?" Even the new material was amazing, with the Second Skin that emerged from the jam just taking the baton and running another few laps with my sanity.

It could have been an hour or a couple days, but the second set did eventually end. There were moments in there, I admit, where I wasn't sure if in other circumstances I would be enjoying it. I could sense a lull between Surprise Valley and the jam in Airplane, although I didn't experience it per se -- like looking out the window and seeing it may or may not be raining but, one way or another, not getting wet myself. Anyway, on with the night: the rumor had been floating around that Philips Arena would honor the band between sets and as seen in the photo up top, they raised a banner honoring 15 straight sell-outs in the arena. Happy to say I was at the first one, but I've missed too many in between. It was very cool, when you consider how historically sucktastic the pro sports teams that play there have been, you'd have to truly consider Widespread Panic to be the Home Team.After a confetti-strewn New Year countdown, the band returned to the stage with Col. Fucking Bruce Hampton (ret.) in tuxedo. Looking damn good, I might say, and damn good to see the old Hobbit. They did a pleasant, but subdued "I Can't Stop Loving You" cover with the Col. really crooning it out. Then Bruce bowed out and -- holy mackerel!! The official setlist says one thing, but my memory is more like They > Could > Go > All > The > Way!. At this point in the review, I might as well throw in the thesaurus, but a couple "quick" comments:

First off, I was actually ready to be downright pissed that there wasn't going to be a Barstools and Dreamers played. I make it a point to get emotionally attached to songs that I have a pretty good chance of seeing at a given show (Reba is my favorite Phish song, e.g.), and so it is with me and Barstools, and yet the drought has been measured in years at this point (some of which is my own fault for my familial tendencies). So, when they busted into this, I was beside myself with what could best be described as glee. Need I bother saying that they nailed it? Right up on the list with it is Pigeons which was also spectacular. The younger, more verbose me (bwahahaah!) might bore you with a note-by-note rundown of each, but I'll sum it up with a short, falsetto "SICK!"

Second: can we all just agree that life is better without a predictable, protracted drums in the middle of otherwise barnburning sets? I mean how much better does that setlist look without a "Drums" forced miserably in there -- it just doesn't go anywhere without making itself feel at least a little bit awkward for ruining everyone's good time. Honestly, I don't know if I'm more psyched for the Barstools or the lack of drums... alright, it was the Barstools which made the whole weekend worthwhile in retrospect: everything else was the proverbial gravy. [In fact, it was about halfway into this, that I made the albeit drunken decision that Barstools and Dreamers was my favorite song in the "of all songs ever" category; what can I say? it rings my bell on every level I want it to.]

Third: love the return of Bruce for Fixin' To Die. They pulled the same thing with Derek Trucks on Saturday night and it's a pretty brilliant move as far as set construction goes.

Fourth: There is a nice advantage to being a grizzled veteran to a band and with Widespread Panic two of the last three times I've seen them that has been absolutely knowing that they weren't leaving the stage until Chilly Water was played. You can hear it 100 times and it's still vintage, quintessential Panic and a monster every time, even more so near the end of already monster set... even more so with Jimmy's new energy and angle on every tried-and-true number.

Last point is Last fucking Dance. Not quite the end-all of bust outs, maybe it's not even considered a bust out at all, but it's still one of those awesome covers that Panic has made all their own... or at least they did when Mikey was still playing 3rd base for them. Not to worry, Jimmy held his own and the whole band was still 100% aflame -- it was past midnight, not only was it Monday morning, it was a brand new year....

Yeah, it wasn't the best Panic I've ever seen or the best New Year's show ever, but it was a whole lotta fucking fun and there ain't to place I'd rather have been... Ain't Life Grand.


1: From The Cradle, Who Do You Belong To?, Wondering, Wish You Were Here, Driving Song, Expiration Day, Down, Ribs And Whiskey
2: Bowlegged Woman > Surprise Valley > Goodpeople > Imitation Leather Shoes, Airplane > Second Skin, Let's Get Down To Business
3: I Can't Stop Loving You*, Love Tractor > Pigeons > You Should Be Glad, Barstools and Dreamers > Fixin' To Die* > Chilly Water > Action Man
E: May Your Glass Be Filled, Last Dance, Ain't Life Grand
* with Col. Bruce Hampton on vocals

Saturday night review

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