22 November 2008

Review: Widespread Panic

(by request... haven't gotten crazy wordy for Panic in a while, so here you go, a full blown, take an hour off review)

The Fillmore at Irving Plaza, 19 November 2008

As I stood there Wednesday night, sardined between people I knew and people I didn't, the sweat of Panic fans mixing in the air as we pumped our fists collectively, I had a revelation. I was now on the other side of the mountain. I had climbed and climbed and climbed with Widespread Panic, reached the summit and now was making my way down the other side into the valley. My relationship with the band was now "over the hill." As my shaking body and permanent grin might have informed those around me, being in my Spreadhead middle age, was a good thing... a great thing. Being over the hill meant that not only was I dancing my ass off in the here and now, absorbing every scintillating moment from ear to toe, but I was also appreciating every note and every song for what they once were and how they came to be what they were on that night.

When the band broke out into "Pigeons" near the end of the 1st set, I screamed in approval -- I thought, "I love this song!" and immediately prepped my not-as-supple-as-it-used-to-be body for some serious grooving. But as the song went on, I thought back to Buffalo 6/20/96 when somehow it first clicked for me how fraggin' brilliant that tune was, and then flashed forward to Warfield 97 when Michael Houser did things in the middle of a Pigeons that haunted my consciousness for weeks afterward. All this swirled around in my head as my hips swirled around an imaginary axis of Herringness. Jimmy playing riffs that somehow encompassed enough of the past without sacrificing his unique voice sharpened the effect. That was a fine Pigeons, but it was made all the better by being informed by every other Pigeons that came before it. Looking down into the lush valley of present day Widespread Panic just wouldn't be the same if not for the glorious climb up the craggy slope of a decade of shared experience.

There were moments like that galore Wedesday night as the overly packed Irving Plaza (now the Fillmore) got treated to what I personally found to be the best Herring-era WSP show I've seen yet. This is WSP version6.2 or something like that, and without my realizing it, they've moved beyond the beta phase and are ready to rock and roll with all past versions... that's right, all of them. Wednesday night was a benefit show in a venue that was too small for the band 10 years ago, so it had the markings of an "event" through and through. Of course, there is always a fear that the band might pussyfoot around the night, go into self-promotional safe mode and keep the die-hards yearning for more. It wasn't even 100% clear to me that we were going to get 2 sets out of the evening, although the ticket price certainly would warrant at least that much music. Thankfully, the band gave us our money's worth and then some, blasting their way through a jam-packed show that lasted, start-to-finish, nearly 4 hours.

My train was delayed getting into town, so my plans to get there early and get as close to the front with as large a friendly group as possible got nixed pretty quickly. Still, got inside around 8:15, worked my way to the far side of the room (which happened to be the Schools side), and immediately realized that it was elbows-to-tits scrunched in there. But, hopping to my tip-toes I saw some friendly faces in the morass and decided to piss a few people off and see how far I could make it. Thankfully, there were little oases of "hello there" friendly faces along the way, so I was able to "excuse me"/"what's up" my way to the front without much incident. Next thing I knew I was a couple men and a couple ladies short of the rail dead in front of Schools and the show was just about ready to begin. Boy, am I glad I took the chance, I hear some horrible things about the middle of the room, but we were just fine up there. Lights go down, band comes to stage, flashbacks to 1995 and away we go...

11/19/08 Irving Plaza, New York, NY
1: Heroes > Disco > Angels on High, Smoking Factory > Fixin' To Die > Henry Parsons Died > Green Onions > Henry Parsons Died > Dark Day Program, Pigeons, Ain't Life Grand
2: Space Wrangler, North > Smokestack Lightning > Jam > Protein Drink > Sewing Machine, Let's Get The Show On The Road > Airplane > Under The Radar Jam > Papa's Home, Holden Oversoul > Conrad
E: Expiration Day, Pilgrims, Goin' Out West
[Bill Graham Memorial Foundation benefit]

By the time the first notes of Disco filled the room, it was clear the band was clicking. The sound could not have been any better where I was standing. Which isn't to say that I had the perfect mix... as it turned out, I could barely hear most of what Jojo was playing. Did I say it could not have been any better? From my vantage point, I got the full Dave Schools treatment all night long. It was fun to watch, remember and relearn how much of the show runs through him. He practically lead the whole show like an orchestra conductor, using his bass in lieu of a baton.

Two new(er) songs followed Disco which was the clear low point of the night, if it had one at all. Angels On High had some nice moments and let Jimmy get his legs under him, I think that song has a nice future ahead of it. Smoking Factory continues to disengage... it's like there are two songs in there, one quite good and one quite craptacular. If there was some way to exorcise the shit, we might be OK. Still, Jimmy's unbridled enthusiasm to just play, play, play makes even the iffiest of tunes worthwhile. Song after song he would just go at, sometimes in the most inappropriate places, sometimes for much longer than necessary, but the rest of the band wisely doesn't try to rein him in. Why should they? Better to err on the side of ass-whooping guitar nastiness than the alternatives. The addition of Fixin' To Die to the regular repertoire perfectly personifies this attitude and seems to be an almost pure let-Jimmy-at-it maneuver by the band. Somehow it feels like I've been getting a lot of the same songs in the rare instance that I get to see these guys, so I could do without a Fixin To Die (and North, Conrad, and Wrangler while we're at it) the next time. But I guess that's what happens when you only see a band like Panic twice a year.

Midway through Fixin To Die, the show kind of segued from a 50/50 proposition to something that was no-doubt-about-it going to rage. You could just tell from the looks on their faces, the way everyone was bringing things up just a little bit, the way the 6 teeth of the gears were clicking into place, fully lubricated and churning and chugging along without effort. These guys are professionals and will make shit happen one way or another, but sometimes it seems to come a bit more effortlessly than others. You can tell pretty quickly if they're in that zone, and it's what separates a good show from a great one. They can make up for lack of "it" by setlist choices or some other intangible, but when they're on, it don't matter what they play. That's something you learn from climbing up the mountain. You see when it happens and you see when it doesn't... for a while there it wasn't happening at all and that's what makes you appreciate it that much more when you're making your way back down.

Suffice it to say, it did not really matter what they played Wednesday night. As it so happens, starting with Henry Parsons, they made turn for the dark, deep, evil, mysterious Panic. The air inside Irving was thick, people were passing out, it was nearly impossibly to get a drink from most parts of the venue. JB, Todd, Dave -- they didn't care. They turned that room into a dungeon. They strapped the crowd to the rack and commenced with the torture. Sweet, sweet torture.

Henry Parsons -- my mind flashed back to 12/30/95, the date that that song really clicked for me in my mind. Every time I've heard it since has been influenced in some way by that night in Spartanburg, SC. No one clamors to hear this song, but when it starts up, there is a ripple of energy in the crowd. "Yes!" They stretched out the intro a bit, either intentionally or not, and just let the crowd simmer in the possibilities. I was in full eyes-glazed-over mode by then, I couldn't see Sunny from where I was standing and I couldn't hear Jojo barely at all. I was fully zoned in on JB's scorching vocal, Schools carpet bombing bass, Todd's steady pacing and Herring's past/future mind meld of a guitar lead. The playing was like an fight scene from the old school Batman TV show, like splotches of color and text were exploding from the speakers: "POW!!!' "BONK!!" "SPLAT!!!" Damn, that was hot and got even harder. For all that history and orienteering I've done with Panic through the years, there are still surprises lurking over the hill. I had no idea they even played "Green Onions," let alone had started to sandwich it in the middle of Parsons, but cool, calm and collected -- like they'd done it countless times before -- they one by one -- first Todd, then Schools and on and on... -- made their way into a pretty neat Booker T jam. I'm not sure this is the best cover for Widespread, but by putting it in the middle of a smoking Henry Parsons, it was a perfect elevate-your-game choice. When they went back into it, whew... hot shit!

The set closed with the aforementioned Pigeons and a crowd-pleasing Ain't Life Grand. I don't think I'll ever tire of hearing a set end with Ain't Life Grand. Feels good. Felt good.

During set break the crowd thinned out... for a moment. Then it got even more crowded. Thankfully there were good people nearby and, personally, I've dealt with crazier, more packed situations many times in the past. Until I'm being pressed so hard against a rail that my feet aren't even touching the ground (again), I think I'll be OK. Unfortunately, the set break was a little longish, which is always tough. I could only hope that they were resting up for the goods. As we grew restless, we played the "what they going to open with" game, and it grew increasingly obvious to everyone that it was going to be Space Wrangler. It was destined to be true. Finally they returned, Dave barely brushed his bass and I knew from the sound that came out, that it was, no doubt about it, Space Wrangler.

They opened the second set with Space Wrangler. That was about as tame as the rest of the set would be, because it was about to get hell raiser evil on Irving Place. North followed and is one of those tunes I seem to catch every time they play it... or that they play every time they come to NYC, which is probably the case. Still, like I said, they were in the don't matter what they play zone and they were pretty much bulldozing everything in their path. As usually is the case, Jimmy H was jamming the shit out of everything. Like any spot where he saw an opening he filled it with a zillion notes played at a frenetic pace. I'm quite certain after watching him play for hours on end Wednesday night that he powers his own guitar and amp by sheer perpetual motion. If he hits the wrong note, you'd never know it, because he's on to the next one so quickly. The more you think about it, the more you watch him play in this band, the more you realize that he is a terrible guitarist for this band. There is no logical way for his style of guitar mangling to work in Widespread Panic, and yet, you listen to the way his notes fit in with the rest of the band and the way the rest of the band fits their notes around his and it's quite clear that this is the right thing. The only way.

Still, it can lead to moments of awkwardness. For one, the band seemed to have a horrible time ending songs. I've seen this kind of flu hit them before. There was some sort of disconnect between Herring and Todd Nance on the drums, like they're not quite speaking the same language and if Schools isn't there to act as interpreter, they're just not going to understand each other 100%. I can live with that. More awkwardness was the case during the ensuing "Smokestack Lightning." First of all: sick! Awesome segue into it, the kind of song where you feel like you've heard them going into it dozens of times before but never has it really materialized (at least for me, first time). It was a perfect choice given how well the band was playing, and especially how good JB sounded. He really nailed this one, embodied the old school Blues of it all. The way they eased into it was essentially verse>playing>left field jam>playing>verse.... There were at least 4 distinct jams in this one and each one probably stretched on for minutes that felt like many, many minutes. Is it possible for a capital-"J" Jamband to jam too much? J is for Jamming and J is for Jimmy, coincidence? I think not, the dude just loves to play. And play. And play. The rest of 'em were all too happy to follow him, so that the whole enterprise came off as a Keystone Kops routine. First Jimmy would escape the basic framework of Smokestack, Dave would look at Todd with a "I'll get him back" grin and instead of shackling the fugitive, would get caught up in the chase like a dog after his own tail. Then one by one the rest of them broke away essentially giggling themselves into exhaustion until finally Dave or Todd was able to wrangle them back into another verse. This happened at least 4 times during the course of the tune. It was a standard blues tune and then it was a '73 Dark Star over and over again. Who knows how long they were playing at it, but it felt like forever. And yes, that's fun. A lot of fucking fun for quite a while, but eventually I'm just like "so, does this mean you're not playing Barstools tonight?" {sob}.

Eventually they ran out of verses to sing -- actually that not true, I believe JB made up a couple of them on his own -- and moved on to the next line of the setlist. JB changed guitars for the Vic Chestnutt chestnut of Protein Drink > Sewing Machine. After all said and done, they pulled off another nice segue, letting Smokestack kind of melt away and then Jimmy lifting up out of the pause with the sweet opening riff to Protein Drink. Lemme tell you, this was another great choice for the show... they were feeling the dark side pretty strongly and this gave them every opportunity to embrace their inner Vader. It didn't disappoint. Rather than letting Jimmy lead them around, they seemed to take the plunge together, pricking their fingers and letting the blood mix together in some crackling ritual. Man, did I mention how freakin' good it sounded in there?

The only respite of the set was the "Let's Get the Show on the Road" that came next. Setlist construction is always an important, if underappreciated art. What songs to play and when to play them, it can make or break the show. I never would have guessed that LGTSOTR would have worked in the middle of this set. This set of murky grays and splotches of brown didn't seem like it needed any drips of color to make it any more enjoyable. But, of course, I would have been wrong. This was a perfect interlude, a moment to pull back the curtain and remind us how subtle and beautiful Panic can be. Not only that, but how they can be beautiful and yet brutally intense at the same time. JB, coming off the growling in Smokestack Lightning and the detached depth of his Chestnutt aping was able to open up, dig deep down and show us how absolutely soulful he really is. Jimmy, was able to cool off, slow down and play something nothing short of gorgeous.

This combination of sheer beauty and stark intensity carried over into "Airplane." This was another one of those moments that had me reeling through my Widespread Panic past. Sometimes we can be made to fully appreciate the band we love and think we know only from an outside observer. I remember giving a non-Panic-type a few live shows to listen to back in college. He probably never became a fan, but he made a comment that I will never forget. talking about "Airplane" he was struck how the band could go from a quiet, moody love song to a full-bore raging jam and back again in about 3 and a half minutes. "I've never heard anyone else do that before," he said. Not too many months after that conversation the band decided to take a song that I usually poo-pooed when they played it and tacked on an 8 minute jam that would oftentimes be the highlight of the show in which it appeared. I thought about those past times as the band stretched and stretched and zigged and zagged their way out of Airplane. Maybe I'm just getting older, but I'm not sure it would be such a terrible thing if they went back to the way it was before. So that the highlight wouldn't have been the extraterrestrial orbit that the Nance/Schools/Herring jetpack had brought us to, but rather they way JB botched the lyrics and fumbled his way around before catching his footing... the way he sang "sitting around watching the snow fall" to reflect his southern skin's certain recoiling at the cold temperatures that have overtaken the region the past week. Yeah, the jam was pretty spectacular, but there were plenty of spectacular jams during the course of the evening. This band doesn't need 10 minutes to prove its point. Although it ain't so bad when it takes 'em anyway.

Things got more and more pleasantly old school from there as the jam eventually surfaced into a blisterning set-closing triad of Papa's Home, Holden Oversoul, Conrad. All three were perfectly executed. For once, the jamming was perfectly appropriate in length and style. The shit was tight, the music was flabbergastingly good and the crowd responded with a surge of energy that I haven't felt at a NYC show in quite a while (if ever). Papa's was nice and compact -- there was no sandwich, not even the whiff of a drum solo, no crazy extended jamming, just a really awesome version of this really awesome song. JB sang every word like he meant it: winter is coming, Christmas is coming, we're going home. This final stretch was as tight as I've seen this band in a long time... the soul of Mikey Houser was floating in between the chandeliers, possibly joined by Bill Graham's, probably loving the music, the dancing, the energy and probably wondering why the hell everyone was constantly taking pictures with their phones. I was struck during these last three tunes -- struck again! -- by the lyrics, the songsmanship of John Bell and his band. No one writes songs like these. Probably unnoticed and unappreciated because they are lumped in the "jam" genre with bands who sing about utter nonesense. Just picking out these last three songs, there are enough words to parse, moments to savor and cherish that most musicians would kill to have on a whole album. And here Widespread just goes bang, bang, bang, three every day tunes that work on so many levels, speak to so many truths about life, the universe, the everyday human condition and yet rock so fucking hard that you barely have the breath or wherewithal to stop and listen to the words or appreciate those moments. It should also be said, despite what I may have typed earlier, that with Jimmy Herring in the band, they can close every friggin' show with Conrad for all I care. There are a select few older Panic songs that feel like they've been waiting for Herring to come and play them. There aren't many that I would categorize like this, but Conrad was definitely made for Jimmy's guitar, the fine balance between prog-ish composition and boot-to-skull rocking; the delicate, butterfly wings and the wriggling, gooey fuzziness of a caterpillar all in one. That is Jimmy Herring... he just needs a little room to fly. For better or worse (mostly better) WSP is giving him all the room he needs.

By the time they left the stage it was well after midnight. The sign on the wall when I was walking in stated the second set would end at 11:15. That had been a take no prisoners Widespread Panic SHOW with a "throw you in the dungeon, throw away the key" second set. A set whose only weakness was that it was maybe jammed out too much. It really didn't matter what they encored with. After a kinda long ovation break during which more people caught their breath, fanned their sweaty underarms or apologized to their neighbors for the constant elbowing than cheered for an encore (that shit was tiring!) the band finally came back to honor us with some more music. They opened with Expiration Day, the 3rd brute/Chestnutt song of the night. I noticed here that JB had a guitar specifically for these tunes which I found a bit odd. Any explanation? I couldn't really hear a difference. Another chance for JB to show us his stuff relatively unadorned. He did not disappoint. I thought we'd get a "Blackout" type quick hit and back out into the cold, but no... Pilgrims!!

These guys were not fooling around. Of course, a song I've heard so many times I had another one of those the present-is-the-past moments. This time my mind reached back to one of those moments when I was not just lucky enough to be backstage after a Panic show, but also lucky enough to be in the audience of Dave Schools expounding some knowledge. The conversation that night made its way to the fact that the band was always on the road and rarely had time to write tunes in the studio. In fact, at that moment, he only had two examples of songs they had written, learned and recorded in the studio as opposed to out on the road. One of these was Pilgrims and he was obviously particularly proud of the quality of the result. And why shouldn't he/they be. Quite possibly as perfect a tune as the band has in their repertoire and quite possibly perfectly played. I was reminded of the first time I had written a review of Widespread Panic (and the only time I wrote anything for my college newspaper at the request of a friend) back when the band was in New England in 1994. Pilgrims was the song that I spent the most time dwelling upon... the way the whole thing fits together, the deep, beautiful mystery of the lyrics which, word for word are propelled by a churning rhythm and an otherworldly melody. All these things swirled together like gases in the stars above, ignited, glowing, distant but comforting. Feels good.

They probably should have ended the show there. I was certain they would. It was past 12:30. But it wasn't that kind of night, it was a more, more, more kind of night. Every song went on a bit longer than maybe was necessary. Both sets seemed to extend into space they had no right going into. There were more people than certainly were legally permissible in that space having much more fun than might be legally allowed on a Wednesday night (at least the ones who were left were having fun, a small percentage had certainly left early) -- I for one, was already up well past my worknight bedtime. The stage was set for just one more song. Really any song would have sufficed. The band chose "Going Out West." I see no significance to this pick and found nothing to distinguish it from anything else they played that night. It brought up no memories or flashes from the past. But it felt good. So, I looked down into that valley... and I danced.


Anonymous said...

"It should also be said, despite what I may have typed earlier, that with Jimmy Herring in the band, they can close every friggin' show with Conrad for all I care."

Ned, when Jimmy NAILED the last guitar line in Conrad... well, let's just say it was a demonstration that he takes Mikey's art as seriously as we do.

Whatever the opposite of "cringe" is, that's what I was doing.

-benjie t

Alix said...

Your section on Pilgrims made Bob cry. Seriously! Great review - we really enjoyed it! Cheers.

Ted said...

Fantastic review! Here's to the valley and to the climb that le us all here. Skol Mr. Stein, may you live long and lucky.