02 April 2007

Review: Widespread Panic

Palace Theater, Albany, NY 1 April 2007

A rainy Sunday night in Albany. April Fool's Day. Widespread Panic. It was the kind of situation where "good" and/or "bad" probably wouldn't cut it.

The show got off to a rousing early Sunday evening start with Neil Young's "Last Dance." BAM! The encore of the last Panic show I saw started this one off with a fury. The band was way loose, crispy loud and dialed in nicely. Oh, it was going to be a good night in the Capital region. As they blasted their way through the prepared portion of their opener and settled into that dreamy coda, Jimmy Herring traipsed ever-so-delicately over the threshold. One of my favorite running subplots of the green Herring era is his naiveté: he doesn't always know which songs "jam out" and even if they do, he's not always sure just quite *where* to put it. Being the consummate professional, he seems to 100% always err on the side of MORE jamming and so it was with this "Last Dance." Of course, there are multiple ways this can go, and Sunday night he opted for a psychedelic guitar-as-sitar wash that he probably perfected deep in a Dark Star with Phil Lesh back in 2000. Surreal. Sublime. Superb.

Good People. Weight of the World. I don't say this often, but: damn, that was a pretty good Weight of the World. Fleshed out the deep funk that sometimes gets lost without the horns. Actually, Herring played the note-for-note horn part and seemed to encourage some slap-happiness from Schools. At this point it was clear these guys were having fun. LOTS of it. Sunday night in Albany -- who knew?

I had forgotten to check over recent setlists before we hit the road, but I had noticed earlier in the week that Panic had played Machine > Barstools earlier in the tour. Had they done that in a while? I don't know. I do know that just reading that setlist got something -- adrenaline maybe? -- flowing through my blood, made me giddy. Of course, nothing substitutes like the real thing and the first smidgen of Machine whispering from the Palace Theater stage had my insides doing somersaults. OOH BABY! Needless to say, they nailed it. It sort of feels like this is the tour when Panic v3.0 comes together as more than just an experiment or project but as a living breathing band. And hitting something as quintessentially Widespread Panic as this couplet is instrumental (pun intended) in making that next big step. They way they hit this one -- each note a powerful blast of energy, the lights the music the crowd all superglued at the hip, each section flowing freely into the next... the future is now. I could go on, but people using words they already know...

The whole first set was pretty pitch perfect and wound down with a nice Ribs & Whiskey > Take Out > Porch Song. JB was particularly WITH IT on the guitar, as good as I've heard him in a while. Saddling up each tune, hopping on slide solos and riding each off into the sunset. Porch song is always a mystery -- short and sweet, long and jammy, somewhere in between? You never know until they get there and it can be jarring. I thought they'd cut it off short after the "live it up!" giddy-up but then they flipped it over into a monster guitar jam, Jimmy just blistering hot, shiny moonlight and the audience just totally erupting. Crazy good energy. Whew! Couldn't have asked for a more solid first set, in my opinion, everything was hot, everything was tight... add your own adjectives, that's what it was.

Second set was a little more, shall we say, hit or miss. Surprise Valley brought back memories of WSP's last trip to Albany. It was a nice little summary of what the set would be from then on out. Started out solid, then kind of hit this major lull with a lackluster drums-only breakdown which was followed by an even more lackluster keyboard interlude by Jojo. By the time they got back to the meat of the jam the whole thing kind of lost its momentum. JH did his best to manage, he's obviously not flustered too easily and came back strong, or maybe a notch or two above your basic strong. His fingers put the presto in prestidigitation, just unwieldy combination of speed, strength and creativity. At times his playing is pure sunshine and I'm afraid to look directly into it.

The second set was all about the JB/Herring/Schools trio -- they are so locked into each other these days, it's getting a bit scary. Jimmy's presence is inciting some serious chops out of his front-line mates. The jam out of Surprise sauntered nicely and Schools eased it beautifully to a segue into Blight. This was real good, but there was a moment in there, maybe it was even longer than a moment... there was a stretch of playing in there that was otherworldly. I think the term is synesthesia -- where your senses get confused so you see the music and hear colors. That's what the band was inducing in my brain last night on one or two occasions. The first was during the jam section of Blight. I'm not sure I even heard the music, but just saw it happening in the lights and colors bouncing around the beautiful theater. The entire band just melted into a single puddly mess, taking on a singular shape on the stage. Thank goodness I don't do drugs. The music was haunting and gorgeous and had no beginning nor end -- no guitar or drums or keys, but just THAT. And whatever that it, let's harness it and bottle it and maybe solve the world's energy problems.

At this point, the music was playing tricks on my mind and I was a captive audience, so I'm not complaining... but the drop out of Blight into Walkin' was bizarre and a bit jarring to say the least. It seemed as the former started to evaporate that the band didn't really *want* to go into the latter, but that's what the cue card said, so... off they went. Not bad, but just not right for that point in the show. There were a few moments like that -- where you really get a feel for how important song placement can be. If they had just lopped off the Walking/Time Zones and gone straight into...

Bum bum ba da... bum bum ba da... the tell-tale rhythms of Blind Faith's "Do What You Like." They leapfrogged the mind-fuck portion of the show a couple tunes, but it was back. Jimmy really got into the meat of Clapton's wailing guitar riffs during the verse sections of this one and the rest of the band really zipped it up nicely. Panic's version of DWYL is always kind of funny in some ways, mostly because JB doesn't really know the words all that well. Not that the lyrics are much to begin with, but he just kind of does the same thing over and over without regard to the pacing of the tune. This isn't really a problem as long as you've got the right attitude and swagger to pull it off. I've seen Bell go both ways on that, but Sunday night's version was as good as I've seen or heard because he was just so damned into it. It was the same vibe for the whole show, the band was just so gosh darn happy and into the music and each other that even the lackluster portions took on a big fat yellow smiley face sheen. Which isn't to say they didn't get dark and dirty -- they did plenty of that and this was another one of those spots where the music got all synaptic on me, triggering reflexes in my nervous system that were involuntary to say the least. Todd pulsed that beat out and the whole band turned into a hypnotist. When you see dudes get hypnotized in the movies, there are lots of different ways it can happen -- there's the pocket watch swaying back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in front of his eyes until... out. That was the 5 guys behind Jimmy. Then sometimes there's the spinning wheel effect, look deep at this spinning, spinning, spiralling, dizzy, dizzy.... that was Jimmy. He took two solos, the first of which was marked by a cool vamp on Brubeck's "Take Five" riff -- I'll take "Things I Never Thought I'd Hear At a Panic Show" for $1000 please, Alex. It actually flowed quite naturally from the song, would make for an interesting mash-up for those so-inclined. The best part about this was that Jimmy was playing this jazz standard and giving this big goofy grin to JB who seemed completely oblivious to what he was playing. Jojo took a solo thereafter and expounded on the theme before venturing off elsewhere... I'm glad someone was paying attention. JB brought it back for another round of vocals and then they launched into that second jam which was more of a launch from planet DoWhatYouLike into the stratosphere and then beyond. Bell turns to Jimmy the way he used to do with Mikey and it is a thing to behold. Schools shoots musical conversation across the stage and gets return transmissions like improvisational text messages "can u do this?" "u r 2 hot 2 hndl." The sum of the 6-man effort was more of the synesthetic effect, the music took the shape of a big white cloud of smoke, dark purple lights flashing like a droning strobe. Sleepy, sleepy, sleepy...mmmmm.

Drums.

1x1 (aka one by one) -- the deep, dark corners of v3.0 were abandoned for some surprisingly rollicking rock and roll. I think you could take all the songs played in the second set and rearrange them for a much more effective effort, but it was what it was. Almost seemed like the set was played backward. But to be honest, this was absolutely smoking -- scintillating to say the least.

The third real big highlight of the night was the Driving Song > Fixing To Die > Driving. Really just the middle part, though. I thought Herring took his spin at the wheel of Driving with a bit of a lead foot. There is a time to ease off the gas a bit, and there were just too many noted played at too furious a level for a song like this. Just a little rough, had to be said. They bopped into a
typical little thing after Driving which, for the second time that night (the first being when they went into Who Do You Belong To) I took as the start to Big Wooly Mammoth for some reason. Then JB got up to the mic and screeched "Walkin' kind of funny..." and I knew we had a keeper. Of all the moments at the Albany show, this was the one where they really let loose. The whole thing had the feel of one of those all-star jams where 6 guys who never play together hop on stage for some standard cover. Everyone took solo (or 2 or 3), wide smiles were thrown back and forth across the stage and the full complement of verses were sung at least two times through, if not more. Dave's solo was every bit as impressive as Jimmy's and JB wasn't too shabby either, wrapping up an A+ evening on the slide guitar. When everyone was satisfied and the song finally wound down, the real fun began. Most of the band kind of played that end-of-the-song noise but Schools reached down deep and grabbed himself an insanely melodic bass line that he worked and worked and worked at until it stuck. The rest of the band faded out of their endgame and followed Dave's suit, the lights (fabulous from note 1 through N) appropriately tripped out and the whole thing snowballed into several minuted of unadulterated deliciousness. It was like real-time composition, a new instrumental served up ad hoc for the yelping Albany masses. These guys have reached the point where glances and nods and twitches serve as deep communication, particularly between Dave and Jimmy and the cohesion paid off. Were they going into something else? Was this a new song? No, just a once-off tangent that had nothing to do with FXN2DI nor the end of Driving Song which would break the spell. Just a few minutes of bloody brilliance.

The end of the show was a bit lackluster. Wondering was C+ average. The crowd was as rowdy as a northeast non-NYC crowd I've ever been a part of. When they returned for the encore Dave said "thanks for coming out on a Sunday night Albany. We feel like Duran Duran" or something to that effect. I was hoping for something yowza to put the show over the top and Little Kin seemed like it had potential (I don't know WHEN the last time I saw that was), but Jimmy did his best George imitation and just kind of blew it. He never seemed comfortable up there and it was then that I realized how amazing the comfort level that he DOES show the other 99% of the time is. The big smile on his face and the "oops" glances he threw at Schools as he momentarily looked up from the sheet music at his feet he was trying desperately to not got lost in made up for the lackluster playing. I'm looking forward to the next time I see that one, something tells me he'll be just fine. Makes Sense To Me sent me to the car for a jump start on the drive but still wondering: where are they playing next Sunday?

No fooling.

1 comment:

Jayne said...

No show next Sunday, Neddy boy. But I will be at the one in a few weeks at the Township. I bet I won't get a Last Dance opener though, ya bastid.