Don’t Panic, Nedstalgia ain’t totally dead yet. Will try to do, on average, one a month. Can’t let this week pass by without thinking back to 15 years ago and my first real Widespread Panic jaunt...
[warning: as always, this is unedited, semi-stream-of-memory... proceed with caution]
For me, WSP has actually been several different bands along the way. There’s the early primordial band in Athens, the band after Jojo joined, and of course, the multiple incarnations after Mikey’s passing. In many ways, the real deal Widespread Panic that most fans fell in love with was born in the spring of 1995. Before then, the band was a bit up and down, no more up and down than they were in 1994. Frankly, by the end of that year, their shows were a bit predictable and boring: songs were repeated on consecutive nights, the quality of the playing was inconsistent and some tunes were languishing on the dreaded “shelf” without reason. I left a fall show at the Avalon in Boston thoroughly discouraged with the truncated show that ended with an all-too-familiar Can’t Get High/Ain’t Life Grand encore, only to be pushed out so the club could turn over into a dance club (god, I hated that).
The great thing about Widespread was that they knew this was the case. The even better thing is that they were determined to do something about it. Word trickled out as they prepared for a humongous spring tour in 1995 that they had printed out a list of every single song they had ever played and went through it, rehearsing songs they had forgotten about, reformulating ones that had become stale. Turns out they were going to laminate copies of the master list and color code songs as they were played, formulating ready-to-play, one-of-a-kind setlists that would ensure that there was always a fresh mix of tunes each night. Maybe things were going to be different this time… and different they were.
If you ever wanted evidence that setlist writing was good for a band, compare the Widespread Panic of fall 1994 with the Widespread Panic of the spring of 1995. It’s no comparison. As setlists started popping up from the Midwest with bustouts and breakouts and new songs and old songs in new spots, and each show having a clear, coherent arc, and completely different shows every night for nights on end, the excitement was palpable. As far as I was concerned, all that giddiness is was the internet was invented for and I was gobbling it up. Lucky for me, the tour was gaining steam and heading my way…
I may be wrong, but I believe I have only seen one concert after which I walked home and slept in my own bed. That was 3/29/95, Widespread Panic at Somerville Theater. If I had been ready to give up these guys 5 months earlier, after that show I was ready to drop out of school and follow them to places like Spartanburg and Reno. Stream the show here, it’s worth a few hours of your day!
Too many highlights to list, to be honest: the band was in top form from the get-go. Writing setlists did have some interesting wrinkles, a couple of which were present that night: note the Sleeping Man/Sleeping Monkey combo or the 3 songs in a row starting with the letter “P” – results, certainly, of a band going through a master list alphabetically and just picking out tunes. Whatever; it worked. I had seen the band only a handful of times being up in the northeast, but this was easily the best of them by far. Like an alien band had descended from Planet Georgia and replaced those old dudes that used to tour as Widespread Panic. Oh, and, Astronomy Domine>Chilly Water to end the first set was nasty, nasty, nasty.
Luckily, as the setlists were dropping into my inbox every week, I was wise and planned ahead. One night of Panic close to home would NOT do the trick, as balls-to-the-wall as this show was, I would need more, more, more. And thus, 15 years ago, I went on my first true Panic road trip… to NYC, of course: two nights at Irving Plaza.
Now, here’s a cool little anecdote… at some point during the Spreadnet discussion about how sick these shows were as songs are getting busted out left and right, someone pipes up saying “they should bring back Pusherman… in New York.” Of course, even back then, it would take more than that to break the signal-to-noise level of an internet discussion group. A couple days later, someone comes back from a show in Maine or something and says they were there for soundcheck and the band was working on… Pusherman. But they were having trouble remembering it, so the dude went back to his house and got his CD so they could listen to it. Fast forward to the band’s return to Gotham and in a monstrous second set of the first night at Irving Plaza, a set peppered with plenty of P songs came a surprising-but-not-surprising return of Pusherman (with a small gap of 414 shows since the last one played, thank you Everyday Companion!). Actually, it went Pusherman/Impossible/Diner/Papa’s, but who’s keeping score?
The moral of the story is that this was a new Widespread Panic unlike any Widespread Panic that ever was or ever will be. This was a band more in tune with its fans than any other I’ve ever known and who expected nothing but the best from themselves every single night. It was a band that got better and better every single tour, starting with that tour in spring of 1995 and ending, tragically, when Michael Houser passed on.
Irving Plaza was a fantastic time. I had a great mix of friends with me, old and new, the room was probably half to two-thirds full, the volume could probably not (legally) be turned up any louder than it was, the band seemed crowded at the front of the stage, ever-eager to break the barrier between musician and audience. There haven’t been many Panic shows played in NYC that were better than these two. It all came to a head with the second set of the second night which was a non-stop rage machine. It was the first time I had ever heard Tie Your Shoes before, live or on tape and I was thoroughly blown away by the funked out blitzkrieg of a jam that festered within.
It’s crazy that a band I thought I kind of knew, had been listening to for almost three years, owned all the albums, etc could be such a mystery to me. These shows were a rare opportunity to rediscover something I already knew and to fall back in love with something I thought I already was kind of smitten with. Not only were there covers I didn’t know they played, songs I didn’t even know existed and jams I didn’t know they were capable of, there was also a new energy and attitude that elevated the whole experience.
The spring Panic 1995 came down to the crushing set-closing segment of that second set. The band launched from a raunchy Radio Child into Chilly Water. Now, I’d seen Chilly Waters before and I knew that this was the moment when dials got turned to 11, Dave Schools’ hair started moving with a mind of its own and the rest of the band became possessed with its warped view of what a rock band should be. But something unexpected happened as the jam reached its apex. It fizzled. Not in a bad way, it just melted into a noise and from that noise came Jack. Wow, I was surprised, I didn’t think they’d end with that, and yet it was about that time when things should be wrapping up. The Jack was awesome, a break we didn’t know we needed but as the song wound down the pace picked up. Michael Houser latched onto a stretch of guitar playing that snagged the rest of the band in its web and things just built and built and built and built… I turned to BT next to me and kind of mouthed “what the fudge?” because talking would have been impossible at that point. It was sick Panic jam personified, Michael Houser in an "I'm playing 3 guitar solos simultaneously and your brain can't handle it!" nutshell and then it clicked… were they going back into Chilly Water? Cause it kind of sounded like they were going back into Chilly Water. I had never, in my wildest dreams, considered such a thing to be a possibility and yet, it sure as cuss sounded like they were doing that and frankly, it sounded perfect. As perfect as any two songs glued together could possibly sound. And then BLAMMO! It was back into Chilly Water, every hair on my body stood on end and I realized that everything had changed. In the ensuing years, it was a sandwich that would pop up quite frequently, but I am pretty sure that was the first time they did it and I’m even surer it was the best.
The postscript to the trip to New York was that as fulfilling as it was, it wasn’t enough. How could it ever be enough? My buddy was hitting University of Rhode Island (he lived nearby) on a Sunday night and he had no way of ensuring that I could make it home after the show but hey, there’s a spot for you if you want and this really cheap ticket and… how could I refuse? It was the first spur-of-the-moment, gotta-get-more-Panic decision I’ve ever made, but the first of many, I can assure you.
Can’t go into too much detail (glad you’re still with me down here), but that show might have been as good or better than the other 3… I remember it fondly, but haven’t heard a lick of it since that night. I do remember that the show was essentially in a lecture hall, there was very little dancing going on or energy in the room whatsoever and a lot people left after the opener who was some “name” northeast jamband that I can’t recall at the moment. And yet, as if playing just to me, the band raged with another custom-built-for-you setlist and that characteristic "we're playing like it's the last time we'll ever play together" verve. The encore was a blistering Me and the Devil>No Sugar Tonight combo and I was able to find a ride back to Somerville in the pouring rain so it was well worth it.
The postscript to the postscript was meeting Dave Schools for the first time almost a month later after a show in Portsmouth and him looking at me and saying (this was almost a month later, mind you) “Hey, you were the only one dancing at that URI show.” Sort of sums it all up, don’t it?
I have copies of Irving Plaza shows I could make available if someone wanted. Leave a comment or send me a note so I know it would be worth my while to upload.
Until next time...