26 July 2007

Review: Widespread Panic (part I)


Radio City Music Hall, 20 July 2007

Radio City Music Hall has evolved into a nice little friendly home for Widespread Panic on their trips back to NYC. Last fall there was a buzz in the air as it was the first shows with Jimmy Herring filling the lead chopper spot. This time around he was a couple tours wiser and inching his away from "new guy" status each song and set he plays. While Jimmy was back for more, Sunny was absent, on bereavement leave for a few shows. These guys have been playing long enough to have been through all sorts of permutations: shows without Mikey, pre-Jojo T. Lavitz-on-keys-tours, random shows in random states when Todd checked out with a little bit of whatever they were calling it that night and most everything in between. It wasn't a question of if the guys would adapt without Ortiz, but how and most importantly: how well?

A candle stood in the place of the gap-filling percussionist, a classy move by the band and got the proceedings off with a warm, family feeling. With a nod but nary a tear, they launched right into it with Todd Nance bleating out the opening bops to "Pleas." Just as he did the first night of the run in the fall, Jimmy wasted no time being felt, playing wild sitar-type chords that have no place in a song like Pleas. Does that bother you? Do you sit through such a performance ticking off the ways Mikey did it differently? I'm slowly getting over that feeling. This is Jimmy's band, like it, love it or leave it.

Still, there are still some rough patches and the first set was chock full of 'em. The Pigeons that followed was lacking. A big hole in the center where something was expected but wasn't to be found. It went along in fits and starts from there with the blistering moments serving more to frustrate when they were absent elsewhere. Party At Your Mama's House was a possible turning point as they started to ember a little. They flipped over into a jam out of that one that was like the missing jam from the void in Pigeons. Still, it never would have gone where it went out of PAYMH, just soaring up and up and up -- Harry Potter on his broomstick, magical and mystical in every way. It really would get no better than where it went during that jam the rest of the night. We were in row OO, and that went from our seat location with its crispy, crunchy potato chip sound to an onomatopoeic description of the feeling I was getting: oooooooooo!

It crept back down into Ribs & Whiskey in a full-on, honest-to-goodness segue that may very well have been the moment in another show. Sadly, Friday night it made way to Jojo singing, not horribly, but still... this was certainly one of those "turn John Hermann down" affairs, where seemingly every time he plunked his mitts down on the keys it came out awkward and much too loud in relation to all that not-so-awkward music around him. At his best, Jojo allows himself to be swept up by the rest of the band, like a passenger in the back seat: quiet and unobtrusive, occasionally pointing out a missed direction or cool landmark, but otherwise, content to ride along and check out the amazing scenery his driver is whizzing by. At his worst, he's pretty bad.

The set ended on a nice high with Walk On bringing a bass-boogie Neil Young to raise the energy to 8 or 9 and then Conrad being the usual can-do-no-wrong set closer. Still, something wasn't quite clicking there. It was solid, but it didn't transcend. The weird thing was the question: was it Sunny's absence that threw 'em off? Of course, it's hard to say. Lackluster is certainly in the Panic vocabulary with or without a percussionist. Who knows. The music certainly was porous, like little holes where a bongo or chime or wood block can be. Listen to any recording of Pigeons and imagine what it might sound like without Sunny's additions. Not too different, but maybe just different enough to make that difference.

Meanwhile... during the setbreak weird stuff was happening around the city and around the world. Stuff that had nothing to do with Panic. That's right, the Harry Potter book was going on sale!! Freaks inside Radio City were on the verge of uncontrollable excitement in anticipation for the second set, but that didn't touch what all those other freakers were feeling at all the Barnes and Nobleses. Our own wizard-in-the-corner, JB got things launched with the dirty, dirty opening licks to Thought Sausage and Herring with his long flowing hair did his Dumbledore shooting lightning bolts from his fingers. It was clear the second set would be a bit more magical than the first.

Things really didn't get rolling until Pilgrims, though, which was phantasmagoria of sound. I have no complaints with this Panic v3.1, it's better than all the other alternatives combined, believe me. But still, the moments of pure wizardry, where everything clicks like nothing else out there are still a bit sparser than I'd like. This Pilgrims was one of them, with the whole band working together like some A-League Quidditch team weaving on broomsticks high in the arched rafters of the Radio City Music Hall. The outro was a thing of perfection making me sweat and giving me the chills all at once. Jimmy Herring making things appear out of thin air and the rest of the band following suit. Give it up for Widespread Panic.

The set was in full swing and I turned to my left and said "the next song is the make-it-or-break-it point of this show." When the big Hagrid Schools laying down the opening groove of Blight I knew it could go either way. Thankfully, the band was fully in touch with the Dark Arts and descended deep into glorious blackness. Hands down, the best Blight I've ever heard. I could utter nothing but "Sweet Jeebus" in appreciation of the shit these guys were playing. Get the tapes, listen and write your dissertation: a note-by-note analysis of the new Widespread Panic, where it is today and where it's going. This is the future of mind-flipping entertainment. Poof! Long, hypnotic, full-fledged jamming this thing had it all in evil, smoky undertones.

This set the tone for the rest of the set as it proceeded to get darker and more mysterious. These guys were not the good wizards and witches, but the monstrous creatures lurking underneath the floorboards. Second Skin has grown into a Dementor of a song, a launching point for mind-erasing that seems to suck all the soul out of a set leaving the crowd brain-dead in the best possible way. I lost all sense of time during this one with the band spiraling around and around whilst sinking down, down down. We must have been getting close to midnight by this point, you could feel the eeriness in the air. A brute. doublet was equally as nasty, although much more grounded. The band was crushing gravel at this point and it wasn't until Space Wrangler that I was able to snap out of it and remember I was at a Panic show. Be sure to wash your face and hands before eating, that is some muck we just waded through!

Jack was inevitable. Mr Soul was a welcome treat -- really, things had not been loud enough up to that point. More Neil! Crappy encore.

Filed out into the night and things definitely were bizarre. Multiple nitrous tanks on the streets of Manhattan. Freakers walking down the sidewalk with their noses in gigantic orange books. Another dimension, through the looking glass, platform 9 3/4 and all that jazz...

What I would call an average Panic show: Ned-O-Matic: 5.0

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