10 November 2011

Nedstalgia: 10 Years Ago

A few days late, but just realized that 10 years ago this past Sunday I saw Michael Houser play for the last time. Not coincidentally, it was the last time that I got utterly blissed-out to Widespread Panic. For those reasons and more (like the show was in my hometown and I got to take my dad with me) this remains one of my favorite shows. It also marks the last time I wrote a terrifically long review of a Panic show (thank God I didn't have Twitter back then). Somehow I used to have time to write these things. I stand by it all, particularly the Ride Me High which is Michael Houser at his all-time finest. Here, unedited in all its glory is my review of the show.

You can listen to it here

Before last night, Widespread Panic has played Syracuse, NY one other
time in their 16 year existence - 10 July 1992 as part of the inaugural
HORDE tour. That happens to be the first time I saw Panic play and I was
almost immediately hooked. Nine and a half years later and almost a
hundred shows under my belt, the band decided to return to the town where
I was born and raised. Tuesday night or not - there was no way I was
missing this show.

The plan was to drive up Tuesday afternoon, chow some grub, catch what
was sure to be one of those mid-week sleepers and head back to NYC
directly thereafter. This was pretty much the same plan that backfired on
me in almost every way back in February (see:
http://jambase.com/headsup.asp?storyID=931) but I am not discouraged
that easily.

Let's get straight to the show:

Widespread Panic
Landmark Theater, Syracuse, NY, 6 November 2001
Set I: Little Lilly >> Walkin' > Henry Parsons Died, Do What You Like >
The Last Straw > Sleeping Man, Ride Me High >> C. Brown, Imitation
Leather Shoes
Set II: Travelin' Light, Old Neighborhood, Cynic, Porch Song, Party At Your
Mama's House >> Stop Breakin' Down Blues > Drums > Stop-Go, And It
Stoned Me, Conrad
E: Me And The Devil Blues > Mr. Soul
['Voodoo Chile' tease by Dave after 'Drums'; 'Three Little Birds' and 'Body
And Soul' raps by JB during 'Stop-Go']

Oh yeah, welcome to the 'Cuse boys. Great, dare I say raucous (for the
Northeast-outside-of-NYC, at least), crowd tucked into the Theater on a
crisp but snow-free evening in Central New York.

The show started with Little Lilly. My second in two shows, but still a song
that I dig on. One thing of note from right out of the gates was the supreme
quality of the sound in the room. Thankfully, this would continue all night
and besides a few random and inexplicable whines from the PA I have
nothing but kudos for the sound crew.

Lilly > Walking > Parsons is standard setlist fare, but there are two sides
to the Panic coin - playing on one and setlist on the other. And I can safely
say that the playing was dead-on near perfect. Schools seemed especially
energized from the get-go with plenty of added fills and frills to bounce the
music along. The band warmed up nicely and was tight as you could ask
for. Solid, if not inauspicious, start.

Right when the set needed that transition to silliness, it came just-as-
ordered in the form of the opening sway of Do What You Like. I was
especially psyched to hear this rare cover since I had my dad standing next
to me taking in his first Widespread experience and him playing his original
Blind Faith vinyl for me years ago is a clear cut mile post in my musical
education. Luckily for the both of us, this version of DWYL was as good as
I've heard. JB, who is prone to miss or foul up lyrics in this tune especially,
nailed them all with that serious soul that pops up in force every few shows.
This show was all about John Bell "feeling it," so to speak and this was the
first indication as to how deep into his belly his vocal chords would be
reaching Tuesday night. Do What You Like has a simple, repetitive nature
that builds subtly in intensity and the band was lock-step the whole way
through. As the music wound around the theme over and over Houser and
Jojo traded solos until finally the band grew out of the song's foundation.
Like that moment in E.T. when Elliot separates from the little space dude,
the band suddenly broke stride and entered a monstrous jam where each
member seemed to do what they liked. A driving morass of sound that was
both noise and music was the first departure from straightforward rock and
roll for the show and blistered my brain with its intensity. Schools took over
with scintillating fingering of his bass until the jam finally hit a familiar

Here Schools and Jojo gave a nod to each other as the opening notes to
Last Straw were heard. Each member of the band came back in as
Schools rang the dinner bell to summon back his family for supper. One by
one they fell into Last Straw in what had the potential to be one of the
better segues I've ever seen. My mind was about to flip over as I
contemplated how they were pulling it off so smoothly when it became
apparent that Todd wasn't on track for some reason. He ended up killing
the buzz by shuffling back to the droning DWYL beat and the band could
do nothing but comply with his wishes. JB artfully brought back the "do
what you like" chanting which smoothed out the creases in the cloth. They
brought it down to silence - a nanosecond or two when the crowd and band
was shushed by the enormity of the jam juxtaposed with the emptiness of
the moment and then Todd started up Last Straw. Very sweet - could have
been much, much sweeter.

Last Straw was decent but not excellent. Something about the last couple
of times I've heard this has left me feeling that they just don't have the
timing right in this song. JB howling the vocals in the bridge was spine-
tingling, the combination of the starched-crisp sound and his whiskey-
tinged emotion just had him spinning gold through his lips. After the bridge
as the band built into a quasi-jam, Todd again seemed a little out of step
and seemed to aggravate Schools a touch as he quickly cut the jam into
the intro to Sleeping Man. As far as the actual playing is concerned, Last
Straw and the going in and coming out thereof was the only moment that
left anything to be desired.

We now entered the dirty Southern funk portion of the night as Schools
took the reigns once more. Pounding his slapping thumb against his bass,
he lead the music and vocals of Sleeping Man with notable verve. Jojo was
smoking on the Stevie Wonder clavinet magic and Houser was continuing
with some of his usually shredding guitar. Ride Me High followed and was,
for me, a highlight of the set and show. Unlike the last show I caught in
Chicago, which had JB singing lead on every tune, everyone got a chance
to sing in Syracuse. Jojo's turn at the wheel was Ride Me High. This tune
can swing both ways, from downright irritable to chunky, scathing rock-o-
rama. I'll have to check the tapes, but this is one of the best versions of the
song I can recall hearing. Much of these kudos are the result of a several
minute stretch in the middle that belong to Michael Houser. Simply put, he
was contorting the air in the Landmark Theater to create some astounding
balloon animal sounds together. The solo he took was compressed
through what sounded like several effects pedals - including wah-wah,
volume and distortion - in a way that made his guitar sound like it was
being played through a megaphone, only in no way as annoying as that
sounds at first. If somehow static on the radio sounded like sweetly ear-
piercing, eyeball-poking rock and roll that was the sound he was getting.
Of course, the notes he was laying through such nastiness were peeling
the paint off the walls. Just plain sick.

This solo made way for a diverging jam that sunk into an attractive groove.
The band was a 6-man team once again and simmered something really
tasty over their burners. It seemed that half of them sank into the beginning
of C. Brown and the rest kept the groovy thing going, with Jojo on the
electric piano for a change. This kind of hit a cruise control point and JB
looked at Schools and touched his lips as if to say "I'm going to start
singing now, even though you haven't started the song the way you usually
do;" Dave nodded; JB sings C. Brown. Very good version of this one with
Jojo sticking to the electric piano to keep that groovy vibe going for almost
the length of the tune. Of course, Bell's vocals were sizzling hot and as the
band kept adding logs to the fire in his belly, they were only getting hotter
and smokier. Subtle-but-key lyric change up, especially for Syracuse in
early November: "You can sit in the LEAVES if it feels good." JB = the
man. A powerful bone-rattling Imitation closed off a damn solid first set.
So worth the trip!

Set II started with a bland Traveling Light, another repeat for me from
Chicago - at least they weren't going to close with it. Another repeat-at-
least-it's-not-a-closer, Porch Song, helped the second JJ Cale cover of the
night sandwich a couple of brand new ones. My take on a first listen of
both: Old Neighborhood - great tune, lots of potential. Has a funky, Talking
Heads circa Speaking In Tongues with Schools laying down some
markedly Tina-Weymouth-esque basslines. Very poppy and yet very
complicated in composition with lyrics that are very JB. THe middle
section has a few seemingly tough changes in it that the band pulled off
pretty well. Overall I expect really good things from this one and I envision
one day a section for JB to get silly with long ad libbed raps. In fact, some
of the lyrics already have that story-telling rapping quality that JB has taken
to the next level lately - who knows, they may already be improvised.
Cynic was Todd's chance to sing. Definitely a song I'm going to need to
hear a bunch more before I make a judgement, I didn't come close to hating
it, but it didn't really sink it's claws into my brain either. Moody, alt
feel from Todd's Barbara Cue set. Of note here, JB picked up the
"acoustic" for Cynic and would not put it down until drums. Porch was
short and rather uninspired overall - no jam which left the first half of the
feeling a bit flat here.

Party At Your Mama's House is where the band really started to pick up
where they left off at the end of the first set. Ouch, so tight it hurts. I
all the instrumentals and this is no exception. This one is so well-
composed it has the feeling like each instrument is a character in some
sort of Arthur Miller play. Each word and line is so carefully played out and
as the dialogue progresses the tension builds and builds, not through any
action on the stage, but rather the dialogue itself. Hmmm... makes me
wonder - monologue is one person talking to himself, dialogue is two people
conversing - what do you call it when 6 people are simultaneously
conversing? What do you call it when their voices are instruments and their
words are music? The answer is Widespread Panic. PAYMH was terrific
and well-played and the scripted dialogue finally unfolded into the messy
gibberish of a nice little jam. I will say it again - JB!! I've gone on a bit
about his vocals (and there's more to come) but his guitar playing was also
sensational. It was just one of those nights where pretty much everyone
was on top of their game and Schools and JB were leading the charge. JB
playing slide on the acoustic Washburn was killer. The jam meandered for
a short while and then the band worked its way into Stop Breaking Down.

I was getting a serious Kahunaville, Delaware vibe between setlist choices,
sound quality, superb playing and JB's singing and guitar playing. That
night Stop Breaking Down was the perfect vehicle to highlight all of these
and Tuesday in Syracuse was the same situation. I get goosebumps
thinking of JB's singing all night and get hot flashed remembering the way
he plucked that guitar, massaged it with the slide and then sent it into the
depths of blues hell by leaning on the wah-wah. Wild, nasty stuff. Great
version of the song that turned over into one of those greasy pre-drums
jams that can really make a show something else. Take all the yammering
about everything in the show so far and then try to imagine that the
perpendicular jam that connected Stop Breaking Down to drums was alone
enough to make the show "above average."

What more can be said about the jam - Widespread Panic, no holds
barred, freeform adventure into genre-less fathoms of music. Ultimate
Death Match Panic, Schools, Nance, Bell, Ortiz, Herman, Houser - fighting
as one to snatch your brain out through your ears. Every once in a while
they find the "zone" and they found it right here. JB continued to wrestle
his guitar with the slide and Schools played as fast and as slow as
humanly possible but somehow at the same time. Each note from
Houser's guitar was like an insect crawling around on the floor of the jam.
Fortunately, there were like a million of them and they were swarming all
around the room in some choreographed design. Be very afraid.

Drums highlights - my dad asking why people don't leave the show during
drums ;). Post drums Schools - more sickness to the point of fatal
goodness. How often we sum up the Schools portion of the salvation from
Drums moment with what songs Dave teased during his few minutes alone
with the drummers. Last night we had a new one, as far as I know, Voodoo
Child intro riff a few times over - Schools treats Modulus like Hendrix
treated Fender? I won't go that far... but that teasing wasn't until the end.
Every moment that lead up to that was a wildly technological foray into the
concept of "bass solo." Riffs sampled and inverted; bass lines flying
backwards through our ears; bass picks as supple as finger tips dancing
tippy-toe across each string.

It was one of those sets where every song seemed to fit into my particular
moment so perfectly and the coming haul back to New York was summed
up nicely by Stop Go - with an emphasis on the "Go." One of those songs
that every Panic fan must enjoy - just purely Panic, purely JB, purely
Schools, purely Jojo, etc ad nauseum. JB was back to purely electric
guitar and the rest of the band was back to pure electricity. Damn fine
solos all around, one a piece, that had this rating high with me already.
Now, I'd mentioned that JB was feeling it? If you had any doubt, here's
where it started getting good. The quasi-reggae breakdown section which
the end of StopGo has become burst out of the pounding jamming. Right
when you were expecting JB to finish up the last verse like a good boy, he
went devil on us - a quick drop into Marley's "Three Little Birds" assuring us
that everything was gonna be alright (just like the devil to say that) and then
a lengthy, several-verse (perhaps the whole thing?) take on "Body and
Soul" where he assured us that these were not for sale. All the while, the
band bopped along in its best bad-reggae band groove, mildly morphing to
meet the needs of JB's vocal explorations. The whole moment harkened,
once again, back to the Kahunaville Sleepy Monkey where JB lurched on a
tangent and then a tangent to that tangent and then a tangent to that
tangent which was actually where he began. Never should you doubt the
brilliance of John Bell - his body and soul were what made Tuesday night's
show so utterly enjoyable... thank God they are not for sale.

Apologies for being so damn verbose - much to say. Stop Go was followed
by another treat - And It Stone Me - which was solid through and through
and kept the pace of the set right on target. Conrad was a perfect closer
for this kind of a show, a tune that when the band is on top of it can really
fly and when they are off can kind of tie itself up. Last night's was another
solid, well-played version and like the Imitation that summed up the first
set, brought the house down with head-banging intensity.

The encore, I am now realizing, whether intentionally or not, replays that
"Body and Soul" message from Stop Go. Me and the Devil > Mr Soul.
Who else would you sell your soul to but the devil? Any attempt to give
you a second person account of JB during Me and the Devil would never do
justice to how he handled this song. The song, the show, when it comes
down to it, they were all Bell through and through. Each line he sang
during the encore was laden with soulful vocal inflection and just a shade of
ad libbed realism that just blew me away. Whispers, growls, monotonic
speech and even meows littered each verse in a version of this song that
took on a life of its own. You'd have to hear it to get what I heard last
and even then, not being able to watch JB's bewitching mannerisms along
with his singing might lose the affect completely. Neil Young and Crazy
Horse was played during setbreak (I want to say Live Rust) so a rollicking
Mr Soul to close it all out was in due order. No complaints here - kick ass
all around. Made it home safely in acceptable time after sucking down this
7 on the Ned-O-Matic scale.

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