Words by: JC McIlwaine | Images by: Michael Weintrob
Widespread Panic :: 04.05.08 :: United Palace Theatre :: New York, NY
Widespread Panic has graced the stage at many of New York City's hallowed halls, from Radio City to the Roseland, the Beacon Theatre to the Wetlands Preserve. They've been within spitting distance of the bar at nearby New Haven's Toad's Place and far beyond reach at Madison Square Garden. For their current tour's stop in NYC the band chose to touch down at the United Palace Theatre, which once housed the third-largest movie theater in the U.S. and is now home to Reverend Ike's congregation of the United Church.
There was no mention of the band on the marquee out front, only the Reverend's service on Sunday at noon. "Come on in" or "Smile as you pass" were the signs at the entrance. Once across the threshold, all were treated to more of Reverend Ike's spiritual proverbs. One sign read, "Life takes from the taker and gives to the giver." Yet it was the space itself that was most impressive. The United Palace Theatre has been described in different ways but David W. Dunlap's description gets the prize for being the must fun. In his words, the Theater's aesthetic is "Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco." That about sums it up.
A statue of a knight, perhaps Joan of Arc, watches over the room from her pulpit above the entrance. Plush red carpets stretch to golden walls that give off hints of faded blue and red accents, against which gilded figurines sit in the lotus position, hands clasped together, frozen in a Namaskar salute reminiscent of Hindu deities. Ornate chandeliers hang from the ceiling, while electric candles, frosted glass fixtures and long, flowing red velvet banners adorn the walls. Ebony elephants support light posts resting atop the banisters that flank the stairway leading up to the balcony. The inside of this theater is also a surreal sight to behold. Wooden filigree work joins the walls with the ceiling above the stage. Greek goddesses stand on pedestals with their backs to the wall, and dragons and centaurs cling to the ceiling, all oblivious to the crowd lounging on red velvet seats below.
Spectacular setting aside, the scene was much the same on Saturday night as that found at any other Widespread Panic show. Tan faces topped by ubiquitous visors milled through the hallways, visitors just in from sunnier climes. A closed circuit stretched between the beer and bathroom lines. Inside the men's room, antsy guys waited six-deep for their turn, while one fan that'd fallen for a girl named Molly regaled the room with his clipped version of "Fishwater."
WSP :: 04.05
Eventually the theater filled with chatty fans ready to rock. The band took the stage and, after a moment of musical consideration, launched into honky-tonky crowd pleaser "Big Wooly Mammoth." This song, along with other up-tempo rockers of its ilk, is always greeted with an electrically charged reaction. Panic fans like to move, and the more they can move, the better. Foot stomping, shoulder throwing and head banging are the orders of the day, and fans do all with equal aplomb. "Somebody throw me a fire so we can burn this city down," sang keyboardist Jojo Hermann partway through the song. The crowd responded with the usual cheers, but very few lighters were flung to the stage. There is a recession on, after all.
Widespread Panic made their way through a 90 minute first set that included newer numbers like "Angels on High" from their new album, Free Somehow and older, down-and-dirty ditties like "Rock" and "Hatfield." "Hope in a Hopeless World" was given a roomier treatment than in the past, with extended sections between the choruses and verses leaving space for guitarist Jimmy Herring to insert meandering melodies, his fingers dancing around the steady-as-a-rock rhythm that is the band's specialty.
After a surprisingly short set break, they returned, and while the first set was good, the second set was great. The boys led off with "From the Cradle," a fun rocker from Earth To America, then ground their way through "Bowlegged Woman," with guitarist and lead singer John Bell (J.B. to his friends and fans) scatting to Sunny Ortiz's percussion, wearing his heart on his sleeve as he got it all off his chest. Bassist Dave Schools gave the low-end song its due, looking, as always, like he was standing in the eye of the storm but nowhere near ready to budge an inch to the whipping wind.
Jimmy Herring :: 04.05 :: New York
A little way into "Papa's Home," J.B. and Schools joined Herring over by Jojo's piano as he led them through a keys-driven funk jam. Shortly after that Herring took over. As the blue and purple lights painted the stage like the inside of a fishbowl, Herring took the music to a spacier place, giving the audience a chance to catch their breath a bit and holler in appreciation.
Herring has only been playing guitar with Widespread Panic for about a year and a half, but in that short amount of time he has already brought a lot to the table. His guitar work adds new features to the framework that the rest of the guys have developed together over many years. His solos can soar with the best of them, even as they retain his singular touch and a subtlety that keeps them fresh. In his side-notes, when he delves into the between-spaces, he makes a playground of the musical meadow in much the same way as Jerry Garcia and Trey Anastasio did for The Grateful Dead and Phish. He brings the band to those "What's Next?" moments of excitement and anticipation, adding the third and clinching clobber to the one-two punch that Widespread Panic has always delivered. This quality played out most obviously in songs like "Airplane," which felt lighter, like the notes had more room to breathe than in the past.
Widespread Panic fans aren't known for going easy on security guards, who had their hands full at the United Palace. One diligent and determined security guy tried hopelessly all night long to clear the aisles, to no avail, as every square inch of space filled with dancing fans in his absence. Everywhere there were flasks emerging from pockets, drink vendors wondering at the record soft drink sales. Clouds wafted from the floor to the balcony and beyond. Beers were flung by haphazard, flailing arms, lubricating the once-sticky floor, and some cigarette smokers simply couldn't wait for the end of the show to get their fix. Random objects like balloons and glow sticks careened through the air, and the occasional joker shined a flashlight beam back at the security guards.
WSP :: 04.05 :: New York
As "Airplane" wound down, everyone but Sunny left the stage. The man behind the marching rhythm always appears to be caught in the throes of ecstasy when he bangs on his hand drums. He played on his own for close to ten minutes, switching drums, tempos and rhythms as the spirit moved him. After a few minutes Todd Nance sat back down at his kit, striking up a rock anthem beat that ushered the rest of the band back to the stage. Panic played only one more song in the set, a scorching version of "Henry Parsons Died," during which J.B. banged on his guitar for emphasis as he sang about a man incapable of shaking the devil and a town left with no one to blame for their sins but themselves.
There were numerous religious references to be found in the lyrics that night. Admittedly, it's likely I only noticed this due to the church setting, and any conscious intention on the part of the band is doubtful. However, allusions to things like angels, church bells and holy wine, combined with the fact that we were all listening to something like a sermon of a different sort in Reverend Ike's church, started my mind wandering. As J.B. sang the stirring line, "The Lord chooses the good ones, and the bad ones choose the Lord" from "Let's Get The Show On The Road," the first of two encores, I couldn't help but think of Michael Houser and his early, unfortunate death from pancreatic cancer in 2002. I thought back to the old days when Houser, who founded the band with J.B., was the only lead guitarist that ever came to mind with Widespread Panic. I wondered what he might make of the band these days. In my mind, I could picture him hanging out in the rafters of the United Palace Theatre with the Greek goddesses, breathing fire with the dragons and smiling down on his old friends and fans. I sensed that he would appreciate the way they've taken the music on down the road without him, and felt that he'd be honored by the continued love and respect granted his life's work as the band and the community around them continues to spread their own particular brand of Panic far and wide.
04/05/08 United Palace Theater, New York, NY
| Widespread Panic :: 04.05 :: United Palace Theater :: New York, NY |
Set I: Big Wooly Mammoth > North, Angels on High > Little Lilly > Rock > Hatfield, Hope In A Hopeless World, Conrad
Set II: From The Cradle > Bowlegged Woman, Papa's Home > Three Candles > Airplane > Drums > Papa's Home > Henry Parsons Died
E: Let's Get The Show On The Road > Blackout Blues
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