26 July 2007

Review: Widespread Panic (part II)


Bethel Woods Amphitheater, Bethel, NY 22 July 2007

No Panic on Saturday, but Friday was good enough to encourage me to head to Bethel for a Sunday night show. Sunday nights in random places, sounds familiar. Well, not completely random, the venue is a gorgeous ampitheater sitting on the site of the original Woodstock. We joked about what they might play in tribute -- Wooden Ships, perchance? -- but really, we just wanted something to make being bleary-eyed on Monday morning worth it. Man, they nailed it.

I've always loved Panic, had a great time at all the post-Mikey shows I've seen, have been very excited about the Jimmy Herring era and have seen glimpses of what could potentially end up being the best damn shit ever... but I haven't seen it all click together for a full show quite yet. Until Sunday night, that is. From the opening notes of The Take Out, you could feel it in the country air. Hell, you could feel it when you pulled into the parking lot.... that's "lot" singular, as the amount of people coming to the show necessitated only one parking lot, not the half-dozen or so laid out for a potential capacity of 16,000 concert-goers. The estimate for Widespread's show was 3000 at the most -- a mix of what I call the die-hards and the merely curious (local version). And yet, the surroundings were so perfect: a pastoral paradise. From the wood paneling on the buildings to the careful landscaping, the 2 hours jaunt from the city, $5 beers and the kindness of the staff (so nice and friendly you thought they had to be hiding some shortcomings)... this venue is goshdarn perfect. Not sure they have a viable economic model, but still, sign me up!

As if there was any doubt, when John Bell walked up to the mic and said "Well, let's see how much fun we can have" before taking off into Take Out, well... was there any doubt? Take Out was a nice way of settling everyone in. It's fun to listen to Herring in different songs and imagine how he perceives them, how he learned them, etc. His playing in the opener was almost a note-and-tone exact match to David Blackmon's fiddle playing on the album version. When they took a left turn out of it into Diner, well: look out! The crowd may have been small, but we packed together tight and started to shake our asses.

Dave Schools seemed especially buoyant Sunday night from the onset. His bass playing was spring-loaded and seemed to bounce up, over, under and around the rest of the band. Sunny was still absent, but the guys seemed to have adjusted nicely after a couple shows and filled in those little gaps really nicely. The Diner was, as most Diners are, on and to get such an extensive barn-burner this early in the night boded well. It closed the loop by landing in a nice, quick, rollicking Porch Song.

The highlights were pretty much one after another. Gradle was spot-on with JB sounding as soulful as ever. Really everyone seemed to be on point and enjoying the heck out of the whole affair. Gradle somersaulted into a nice, long outro jam. Sometimes Herring feels like he's merely soloing on top of the songs, George-McConnell-style, albeit with more style and talent as you could ask for, but Sunday night he reached tentacles deep into the Widespread Panic soil and got symbiotic with his bandmates, sucking nutrients from their playing and rewarding them with some supranatural efforts. The band was as one out of Gradle and it was one step away from being a Panic version of a 1974 "Bird Song" with Herring looping complicated macramé in the air, twisting notes back on themselves. It was good!

The set just built from there. You Got Yours was dirty love with Jojo feeling comfortable being in the midst and not banging about aimlessly. Disco was all Dave Schools charging like a bull at a matador. Everything was just cohesive and gooey and delicious, I tell you I haven't heard these 6 guys sound this good. Maybe it was the fresh air, or maybe they're finally reaching that special place. Disco > Greta > North was a fantastic onslaught to end the set. North was particularly out-there doing things I never knew it could do with a blistering guitar jam in the middle of the "what are they going into" variety -- I totally forgot there was another verse to be sung and when they came back into it, it was smooth and creamy as peanut butter (non-chunky). Still, they were not satisfied with just that and tacked on another raging rock and roll exposition. Like the highly trained athletes for whom the game slows down and comes easy and natural, when it's truly clicking for Panic these days, they make it look like child's play. And Sunday night it was an effortless game and we were all in on it.

Don't that feel good. The sun had gone down but the venue was still bright at setbreak, lit up by all the smiles on the few and proud. The crowd had actually thinned to just the believers by this point -- perhaps this was the way it was supposed to be. But we all knew this was something special. When the second set started with a rumbling it took me but a second to know we were in for it. Impossible. Second set opener. You've to to be kidding me! Whoof! It was about to get nasty upstate. Forget about nodding your head to the site of Woodstock and just hold on for dear life! The second set was like being in the kitchen of a 5-Star restaurant, watching the chef and his crew prepare a multi-course meal with precision. Slicing, dicing, searing and sauteeing; mixing ingredients that would seem to contradict each other and turning out something more delicious than you could have imagined; sumptuous sights and smells....

Impossible was impossibly good, not much more to say. Widespread Panic ceased being a bunch of individual musicians and just moved as one: geese flying through the air in V-formation. Even Visiting Day couldn't shake the momentum. Fixin' To Die is a perfect addition to the Panic repertoire and this one was a doozie. JB was feeling it deep within his soul and seemed to be ad libbing the entire last verse. But really it was the jamming in here that brought it up to that high place. Inside the song, things were loose and fun, but the outgoing stretch took things way, way, way out there. Long jams can be so many things, but the way the guys were playing in Bethel, this was a big old Panicpalooza a completely unique entity in the set, it's own track on the compilation CD.

They went into Driving Song from there and then the new song "Flicker." Pretty standard rock and roll, but a blazer nonetheless and a first step toward creating a new Herring-hybrid version of Widespread Panic. Couldn't catch too much of the lyrics or anything on first pass, but I feel there is some potential there. Pretty much forgot all about it by the time Jojo whirled over to the keys and laid down those unmistakable opening chords to Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. Impossible opener + Low Spark = you freakin' kidding me? Widespread does not play bad versions of this one. Those lucky few in the crowd got transported for a nice long journey into the depths of Panic bliss. Words wouldn't do it justice. Each little pocket of space, each opening was filled by liquid WSP. Jimmy & Dave locked into beautifully and everyone joined arms. Midway through the themes kind of disassociated sparked by Schools and Nance who did a quick tempo change for the quicker. The new direction caught easily, the band dry timber and the music hot flames looking to consume everything in its path. Dave was just blazing hot during this stretch and it surely felt like there was a song poking up trying to make its way out. Nothing took hold, though, and they just kept ripping it up, really as tight as a band could be before pretty much going as fast and hard as they can and exploding orgasmically back into Low Spark. Mmmm...

The transition back into Driving Song was drawn out and long as if it were another song altogether. The band was in an altered state, zombies for the jam, feeding on the crowds brains. Driving flipped nicely into the pure blues of Neil Young's Vampire Blues (more Neil, yeah!) which seemed a bit jarring but still nice nonetheless. Finished up with an Ain't Life Grand which I always enjoy but seemed like a pedestrian way to end a top shelf show.

The encore was where the juicy Page 6 stuff happened, though. Ostensibly, it was a Vic Chestnutt twofer (Schools between songs: "Since it's Sunday you're getting two Vic Chestnutt tunes"), but it turned out to be a bizarre catfight between JB and Jojo. Bell was really just belting out the lyrics to Expiration Day with some serious loving. The whole thing sounded great and then at one point Jojo started singing some harmonies. Well this set JB off in a bad way. He was waving his arm furiously behind his back -- in no uncertain terms he was saying "shut the fuck up!" to Mr. Hermann and shot him a glance. Ouch! After finishing the tune, JB stormed over to Jojo and pretty much just knocked his microphone out of the way. "Do not sing!" was the clear message. A mighty nice tune ended up getting awkward because of that as well as some not-feeling-it guitar from Herring who didn't seem to have the right touch for this one. They did their double Chestnutt duty with Sleeping Man but when they reached the point where Jojo might take a solo, there was nothing... nothing at all. Wally Ingram who had done an admirable job sitting in for Sunny the previous few nights took this as a cue and started a random little drums section to save what was an incredibly awkward moment. The band finished up semi-professionally, but as they were going through their last end-of-song blitz, Jojo stormed off the stage leaving the rest to soak up the applause. How incredibly odd! Middle school drama at its finest, ladies and gentlemen!

Still, such antics couldn't ruin one of the better Panic shows I've seen in quite a long, long while. The Ned-O-Matic rings up a 7.5 and is looking forward to the next Widespread show. Download this one for sure!

No comments: