[Previously in Nedstalgia: Phish shows 1 & 2, #3 #5 #77 & 78, #79); Mule; Widespread Panic; The Duo; Robert Randolph HORDE 92 (i.e. Phish #4, WSP #1)]
[Download the show (get 'em all here, or in easy to digest portions):
- Postcard thru Diner
- Four Cornered Room thru Godzilla
- Arleen thru Conrad
- Rebirtha thru Drums
- Heaven thru L.A. Woman
Every once in a while you go to a Widespread Panic show and they sing "this town is nuts, my kind of place..." and the crowd goes "woohoo!" 'cause ain't it the truth. Ten years ago, 10/31/97, Panic opened up their first Halloween show in New Orleans with "Postcard" and when JB belted out "don't ever want to leave," man, he wuddn't kidding. Of course, I was there, otherwise I wouldn't be thinking about it today. It wasn't just a trip to see WSP (my first Panic Halloween after 4 straight years Phishin' it), it was also my first trip to Louisiana. I'm far from a NOLAphile, but I'm of the mind that there are many different versions of the Crescent City and it'd take a lifetime to come to know them all. On this trip I learned a few of the secrets, one of which is that otherwise crazy music transforms itself into apeshit "your mind has left your body" full-out experiences. This is doubly true for Widespread Panic.
The Lakefront Arena is nothing special as far as your standard basketball venue turned rock hall is concerned. Yet somehow Widespread + NOLA + Lakefront = magical mystery. Over the years the band has cultivated their own brand of voodoo in that room, playing some of the nastiest stuff they're capable of... but 10 years ago, they were just getting warmed up. They were the young version of Harry Potter, just coming to grips with the ability to wave a wand around and make magic out of everydayness. Now I wasn't ready to pronounce some mystical powers on the gentlemen at show's end that night, I could only say that they had played a kick ass Halloween party.
We got there plenty early. Galactic was a band I hadn't heard a lick of... at that point they were just the name of a band I'd seen on the internet. The "funk craze" of the late nineties had not yet started kicking in to full tilt at the time, so Galactic was off most people's radars... especially northern freaks like ourselves -- in fact, I'm not sure how long the band had even existed in its its form at that point. So, it was no surprise that the room was fairly empty for their opening set. The emptiness of the room combined with a pretty poor sound mix, but there was no denying that there was some sort of something going on on stage. At the very least, these guys came to party in their own way and gave us something to look at. Every band member was dressed in silver jumpsuits, as I recall, which had Xmas-type lights wrapped around/in them. The look was fantastic and perfectly matched the cosmic porn-funk coming from their instruments. Nawlins lesson #415: If good music is even better in New Orleans, it's one more kick up the ladder when it's made by homegrown musicians -- noted.
We got situated, so to speak, for the main event and were in good position to check out the boys' regalia for the evening. The band totally embraced the NewOrleanosity of the night: JB was dressed as Ignatius J. Reilly even sporting a genuine NOLA hot dog cart to match... you can listen to the "tapes" and realize what a smoking show it was, but you can't appreciate it fully unless you know that Bell played the night with a pillow stuffed in his shirt and a hunting cap on his head. The drum kit was dolled up in pure voodoo fashion and the rest of the band sported one thing or another that I can't remember at the moment.
The setlist can be found here and was full of all sorts of tricks and treats. Halloween tradition dictates lots of bustouts and breakouts and general mayhem and Panic did oblige on all fronts. After that smoke-generating Postcard opening, they entered a first-set stretch of warming up and up and up hitting their stride with a deep, dark, nasty seldom-played "Four Cornered Room" that conjured the spirits of all that is Panic-style evil. This flipped into their first big bomb drop of the night -- Bill Withers' "Use Me" which was painfully funky and could only have been made better if they had invited some of the boys from Galactic up to polish off the groove.
The second set was where the real fun was though. After setbreak they opened with a hellish rock and roll blaze and got all monstrous with a bustout of Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla." It totally rocked, but they did themselves one better than just plucking a choice new cover song from obscurity for the faithful... as the song got deep into it, they lowered a little toy Godzilla doll down from the rafters in wonderful homage to Spinal Tap's Stonehenge -- classic! The rest of the set alternated between a little hat-tip-to-NOLA funk and dark, evil WSP-esque rock and roll. Before Rebirtha, Dave Schools announced how the song was originally going to be called "Apologies to George Porter" before dropping the groovy Metersy bass line on us. With all the craziness -- "Pusherman" was especially "!"; I don't remember much, but I do remember that, check out Jojo's sweet Beatles vamp on the clavinet midway through this -- the "Heaven" breakout after a long shelving was a delicious Three Musketeers bar out of drums and probably the highlight of my night. The show smoked, and the encore went above and beyond with a couple of one-and-dones for the Panic repertoire: "Long Live Rock" and The Doors' "L.A. Woman." This last one was a good one. I'd always felt somewhat responsible for getting the band to play Doors tunes and while it wasn't "Riders on the Storm," it was as good as I could have hoped. Lasting memory: JB singing, nay howling "Mr Mojo Risin!" over and over again, like a man possessed, channeling the Lizard King in wild-eyed fashion. Fuck yeah!
The band was dead on, as well... listening to it again I am, of course, sucked into Mikey's constant swirling guitars. I think they just wrapped some Christmas lights around him where he was sitting. Perfect, perfect "costume." The dude just sat there like a tree, roots stuck to the ground, but giving gifts without question or comment to us like we were kiddies on Xmas morning. I do miss 'em, this much is true, and listening to 10/31/97 don't help on that front..
I believe the next day was Saturday, November 1st and that was as interesting as the show itself. Without going into too much detail, we had, through no doing of my own, plans to meet Dave Schools for breakfast. BT, the Big Squeeze, Liffy and his buddy and myself met him down at the renowned Cafe Du Monde and our New Orleans education continued by daylight. Ten years is a long time, so my memory may be off, but I believe Dave ate about 40 beignets and put back a dozen cups of coffee. Mmmm... rock and roll. We were content to listen to Dave go on about the previous night's show, his excitement over pulling off the Spinal Tap prank, etc. (I remember explaining "Waiting for Guffman," as a worthy successor) and then go about our merry way to discover the city on our own. To our surprise, Dave was just as content to hang out with us boring old Yankees, walking us around the French Quarter, humoring all the well-wishers still wiping the cobwebs out from the previous evening's festivities, etc. To make a bizarre and long story succincter, we ended the afternoon jaunt up in his hotel room listening to his favorite Grateful Dead DAT's as he tried to convince us that the Dead's best years were 1983-85 (i.e. the years he was seeing a lot of Dead shows) pulling the "you gotta hear this!" routine that I had perfected with my own music collection back home. A truly illuminating experience.
And an exhausting one at that. One of the New Orleans lessons I didn't learn on that trip was the rule about squeezing as much music into the limited amount of time you have in the city. That one would have to wait until my next trip down there. For 11/1/97, we were happy to discover the only-in-New-Orleans cheese of Bourbon St., find ourselves some sickeningly sweet Hurricane-type concoctions and settled down in a bar to watch Donovan McNabb play football for the Orangemen before calling it a night.
If anything, the lesson of that weekend was that even the most mundane things can be made special in the right context, and the city of New Orleans proved to be the right context for a whole host of things. Doughnuts were called beignets, slurpees could get you gloriously drunk, rock stars were just like you, John Bell could be both an obscure literary reference and Jim Morrison at the same time and Widespread Panic kicked some serious ass... even more so. I would be back.