07 April 2008

Review: Widespread Panic

United Palace Theater, 5 April 2008

...in which I attempt to get through a Panic review without mentioning Michael Houser... I mean, uh... fuck, that didn't last long. Well, then, taking a mulligan and startinnnnng... now!

Widespread Panic has moved on... for me. Well, actually, I can safely say that I've moved on. It's a happy place, because there they can do no wrong. It used to be that I could sit around and discuss Panic online or in person for hours or days or weeks on end without exhausting the things to parse, the jams to dissect or the arguments to foment. It used to be that tour dates were matched up against a calendar and the bank account and frequent flier miles and a certain amount of calculus was required, derivatives and such, to determine how many shows I'd go see and which ones and what phones calls would need to be made in terms of rides and crash space and which state lines would be necessarily crossed in search of the show... or shows, plural, if I was lucky -- the show where everything came together: the band, the songs, the jams, the crowd, the venue, the booze, the triangulation of all those things with respect to where I was standing and who exactly was standing next to and in front of me. Cause every once in a while those things did come together in some magically whiskey-spilt way and that was some good shit. It's kind of embarrassing if you think about it, that that used to be the way for me, but those are the facts.

Now? Now things are a bit different. Sure, I can still hold my own and wax philosophic about the ins and outs of the Panic minutiae when required and I still get excited about going to see the old farts. But my life doesn't revolve around it... by necessity mostly, but still. In a reverse of the old "don't call us, we'll call you" adage, I don't seek out Panic any more, don't go chasing them around the 48 contiguous like a puppy yapping at its master's heels with big, innocent eyes waiting for a pat on the head or, heaven help us, a rub of the belly. No, I wait for Panic to come to me. And every once in a while they do and even though I could twist and turn the state of things to make 2 or 3 or even 4 shows if things align correctly, it's usually the case that just one show will do. Sometimes one set will do. This time around, that's the way things went -- I got to one show this spring and could have left happily and fully satisfied after the first set. Was it the best Panic ever? Far from it. But it brought me back to a happy place that still exists deep in my soul and will carry me over until the next time.

So, it was Saturday night way, way uptown in Harlem at the beautiful, semi-recent add to the NYC venue mix: the United Palace. It's about 100 blocks due uptown from the Beacon which is already nosebleed territory for the high-number-averse like me and infinitely more nice and more special feeling than the Beacon. Frankly, it makes that place look like a pile of poop. I will say, quickly, though, that the security there was annoying. Not annoying in a strict way (I easily sneaked in a bottle of Makers), but annoying in a "turn off your cell phone, it's the house rules" way. WTF? Weird, I couldn't even send text messages without getting hassled by the man, let alone let my foot drift into the aisle. Enough ranting, though...

The show was a lotta fun from top to bottom. The opening "Big Wooly Mammoth" was kinda strange way to start, but still a good uptempo ease-in for the evening. "North" was next and is one of those songs that Herring has just embraced as his own. It's interesting to see where Jimmy has made himself felt in terms of putting his own stamp on the sound and other places where he sticks to the convention. The past two or three times I've seen "North" it's been unbelievably good -- just raging, raging guitar work in there. "Angels on High" was the 1st of 2 new ones which I am utterly oblivious to. I will say for the two of them ("Three Candles" was the second) that I truly, honestly dug them for a first listen and am looking forward to hearing more of them... but will reserve full judgment until I do. Still, it's great knowing that this band is still vital, has no intention of becoming a nostalgia act (even when it is inevitable that they will to some extent). With the way Jimmy has nestled himself into the band and is generating a new sound from within, they could easily redefine themselves with a wealth of new material going forward if they've got it in them to produce it.

Angels segued slightly into the real powerhouse portion of the night. The Little Lilly > Rock > Hatfield was an old school Panic-style trifecta that was easily the highlight of the night for me. Lilly was one of those other spots where Jimmy seemed to redefine the song. He played a few stretches in there that defied my ability to comprehend what he was doing. Frankly, he sounded like Duane Allman with a slide doing Indian scales and made the song completely different and completely his own. Just pure sickness. JB seemed to respond by singing the last couple sections in a completely different slowed-down manner. It was way cool... something I'll need to hear again. Maybe that's the way they always do it now; I honestly don't know and don't care to know. The segue into Rock was true and Schools-driven. It was around this spot that Dave kind of took over the show, I thought. It's amazing to me that I've been listening to Schools in awe for over 15 years now and haven't tired of him at all. It's amazing because I'm not sure he's gotten any better over that period of time, which is to say that he hasn't needed to: he was then and remains to be one of the best in the business and one of my favorite bassists and musicians out there. It's been a while since I've seen him take over a show like he did Saturday night, though and it began in the Rock> Hatfield section. My ears were just glued down to the low end, listening to Dave rip shit up both in several nasty solos as well as feeding and feeding off of Jimmy's guitar playing. Somehow Dave and Jimmy get each other in a fundamental way... sometimes maybe to the detriment of the rest of the band being a part of it. Frankly, I couldn't care less. This is as good a chance as any to say that I felt that Sunny was completely useless the entire show. There was not a moment the entire night where I felt he was making the music better in any way. It's the kind of going-through-the-motions display that I felt the rest of the band used to lapse into during the "George years." Dead weight.

Hatfield was awesome. I feel like I haven't seen that one in a long time (which may or may not be true), but I thought they crushed it. Such a great song. Hope In A Hopeless World was kind of strangely placed there especially because it didn't end the set but gave way for an always-monstrous Conrad. It felt like they maybe were one intense ladder-climbing climax short in this set-closer, but Jimmy still left a footprint on my face as he repeatedly stomped my cranium with his killer playing. Really, Jimmy Herring is in Widespread Panic? Really? I still can't get over this. The set ended with a nice whoosh of air. It wasn't even in the conversation of greatest sets ever, but it was solid, fun and completely satisfying. What more can you hope? Is Panic a sure thing? Pretty close to it.

Set break at NYC Panic shows are a treat. Lots of familiar faces abound. Also, by the time second set arrived I had just about 0.75L of Maker's Mark down my gullet and was ready for just about anything (and also causes me to express caveat that everything that follows may be complete bullshit, not that you care). "From the Cradle" made it a perfect 1.000 average for off-the-mark set openers at a Saturday night New York Panic event. C'mon, bring it up a notch, couldn't you? See, that's the kind of thing I might have bugged about in my previous incarnation as an idiot. The new me, which is coincidentally the old me, just smiles and waits for the next tune... which happened to be Bowlegged Woman. Is anyone every upset to hear that one? Here Jimmy and Dave both zoned in even deeper on each other and also opened up to the full band, bringing in the rest of the group -- well, minus one -- and grouping up for the long set ahead. Bowlegged always smokes and I'd say this version was average in that way.

Turns out this was just a warm-up, as the fringes of Bowlegged melted away into Papa's Home. Yeehaw! And thus began an epic sandwich, Papa's was perfectly played with several of those JB is standing in Jimmy's face trying to keep up and doing just fine moments. Dave played his ass off (figuratively, of course) acting like the undertow sucking the jam out from shore again and agai before submerging it completely. All this finally made its way to the new tune "Three Candles." This one seemed to be engineered fully with Jimmy Herring in mind... I really liked it. But that was just the lettuce and tomato on this sandwich, the vegetables that bring the semblance of health where really there is nothing of substance other than meat, meat, meat. And the meat in Harlem that night was Airplane. That was some juicy, not-too-fat, not-too-lean meaty shit: a two-handed pastramiesque masterpiece.

It's mind-boggling to think that they do this every night with the energy and professionalism that they do. To rip through a setlist, each one completely unique, giving it their all and producing mind-numbing jam after mind-numbing jam; making each night something special for all those in attendance. It's something I can only appreciate fully now seeing them just once in a while. The distance makes things less sharp and distinct and the fuzziness around the edges makes things glow. Widespread Panic positively glows. This Airplane solidified the greatness in a whole new way. The realization is that this is just a pedestrian song on a random Saturday night and yet the playing, the way the guitar and the bass swirl around each other like chocolate and vanilla filling the sugar cone of drums and clavinet and JB's one-of-a-kind guitar playing, is enough to make grown men and women wail and scream and do ungraceful things with their bodies in attempts to translate the pure joy the music is making them feel. Utterly inspiring. It was just an Airplane with a big fat jam tacked on the end, not the best and not the worst they'll ever play. And yet it was, in the moment they were playing it, the greatest thing ever.

Which makes it unfortunate that it had to end and that it had to end by going to drums. Worst drums ever? Holy shit, kill me now. Papa's ended with a bang and seemed to leave enough room for more set which was filled with a Henry Parsons Died. Nice. It may be me, but I'm of the opinion that you can never have too much Lily and Henry in your life. Encored with Let's Get the Show on the Road which seemed a bit more raging than what I'm used to. Always a treat, although my cup had indeed overfloweth with the raging from middle set and all the rest of the goodiness that had come before. Which made my disappointment with the Blackout that followed fleeting.

I left the venue entirely convinced I would be driving up to Albany the next day. That day being Sunday and a day I needed to actually go into work for a few hours, I knew it was a stupid idea to begin with. When the hangover settled in and I wasn't quite as productive as I'd have hoped (fancy that!) I knew that Monday couldn't start with me still awake with my ears ringing and in a car on I-87 babbling about the good old days, so the plan died. Of course, if the old me knew how quickly I folded, he would have given a smirk and shook his head. To make up for it, I tried to go see Explosions in the Sky down the street Sunday night, but it was sold out and so I went home and went to bed. Just as well, I guess.

Thanks again, Mr. WSP, come back soon...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey. I found your blog googling for a review of this show; I was there, too. I agree with what you say about the Beacon seeming like a "pile of poop" after seeing this venue. Funny. And, "Airplane," well, it did, it just felt more special than other times I've heard them play it live. Thanks for the time you spent on this review!