Words by: Frank Etheridge | Images by: Ian Rawn
Widespread Panic :: 10.31.08 & 11.01.08 :: University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena :: New Orleans, LA
Epiphanies can be a bit distracting during a show. But, they're also a crucial element of the experience.
A neurological tumbleweed bouncing about the synapses evolved into revelation at the two-minute mark in "Heroes," the third song of Widespread Panic's first set on the second night of its Nolaween run last weekend. After a rollicking "Ain't Life Grand" opener that flowed seamlessly into "Who Do You Belong To?," the band was clearly firing on all cylinders and building up steam for what would be a stellar show, exuding an energy and dialed-in groove that was a far cry from a somewhat disjointed effort on Halloween. The brilliant imagery and themes of "Heroes" - filled with baseball, old friends and lifetimes - must have spawned this tumbleweed and spun it along its meandering course through presidential politics, financial markets in turmoil, a world at war and existential angst over "Why I am doing this all over again?" into – BOOM! – the moment at hand.
And what a glorious moment it was. Panic was gearing up to dot the exclamation point on their triumphant return to New Orleans for Halloween, a cherished tradition that had been dormant since 2002. The two-night run found the fanbase and band in high spirits, the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena teaming with an estimated 16,000 fans over two nights that were A) on the first night, a crazed costume party marked by excellent cover choices that were a tip of the hat to the host city, and B) on the second night, Panic at its best, a rhythm-and-riff frenzy interspersed around perfect poetry.
After opener Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, the Halloween celebration began with zombies chasing one another and a haunted/abandoned house as the stage backdrop. Keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann and frontman John "JB" Bell took top prizes for band costumes. JoJo was a stormtrooper from Star Wars, not removing his mask even during his singing parts. JB was an apparition of sorts, taking the form of what could be described as an angel or ghost with a flowing white gown accented with glow-sticks on his wrists. Guitarist Jimmy Herring donned a butcher's apron for a spell, and while drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz only briefly sported goofy hats, bassist Dave Schools allowed zombies to maul him at setbreak to join in the Halloween spirit.
|JoJo - WSP :: 10.31 :: NOLA|
Try as you might, but you'll never guess Panic's choices for its annual Halloween covers. However, many a fan has pined for a Credence Clearwater Revival cover, not only for the quality of the material but also similarities in the band's sounds and JB's sweet vocal growls being a pitch perfect match for John Fogerty. After a "Happy Halloween" greeting from Bell, the band launched into a solid cover of "Born on the Bayou," with Bell singing this first-time cover as if he'd been doing it for years.
"Born on the Bayou" proved to be the only cover of the first set, which was highlighted by a rocking "Worry" to close it out. Yet the band's energy seemed a bit subdued and even quintessential classics such as "Pigeons" and "Diner" never reached their typical high-water mark. The lack of continuity was evident by the silence after the instrumental "Disco," which usually serves as a launching pad for bigger tunes that follow.
The second set kicked off with a double dose of the band's friend and frequent collaborator Vic Chesnutt with his "Protein Drink" > "Sewing Machine," one of the best additions to the WSP canon in recent years, a quirky, heavy and haunting tune perfect for the night with its line, "I wanna be a vampire on Halloween." Aerosmith's "Mama Kin" came next and was executed to full classic-rock glory. Muddy Water's "Baby Please Don't Go" and The Rolling Stones' "Time Waits For No One" soon followed. The encore consisted of Ike & Tina Turner's "Proud Mary" followed by the Stones' "Brown Sugar," an excellent ending song where the talented Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews expertly filled in the horn sections. Immediately afterward, the always-gracious JB gave a hug to Andrews, an early-twenties former prodigy that has seemed destined for the big stage ever since recently deceased New Orleans photographer Michael P. Smith famously captured him onstage at Jazz Fest as a little boy, Bo Diddley towering over him, his trombone twice his size (check the pic here).
|Widespread Panic :: 10.31 :: NOLA|
As usual, Panic chose great covers to highlight its Halloween show, and for the most part played them perfectly. Perhaps it was due to the introduction of all this new material, but the band never truly seemed to jam their way down the rabbit hole to that magical, mad place where Panic thrives. But one look at the general-admission floor, which was a constantly gyrating throng of pink rabbits, purple dinosaurs and Cookie Monsters, and you knew the show was a damn fine time.
Saturday night was the yin to Halloween's yang. While the first night was highlighted by the songs of others, Saturday night was full-on Panic, a solid showcase of old and new material. While the band seemed unable to make the connections necessary for improvisation par excellence on Halloween, on Saturday night, they rolled from start to finish.
|Dave Schools - WSP :: 10.31 :: NOLA|
After thanking opener Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, JB stated the obvious with "We love New Orleans." After the trio of songs mentioned at the beginning, Panic kicked into high gear with a thunderous intro into "Impossible," which segued flawlessly into "Radio Child," where Schools and Nance simply dominated. New tunes "Three Candles" and "Already Fried" followed and kept the energy high before the band turned to set staples "Holden Oversoul" into "Love Tractor" to close the set.
Like a heavyweight battling in a title bout, by the time JB drawled "Round 10" before the "Henry Parsons" second-set closer, you know Panic had given it their all. The second set opening "Walk on the Flood" was written by Bell in the wake of the tragedy of the Virginia Tech shootings, but its title and theme could apply to New Orleans and its recovery from Katrina (in fact, sales of this single benefit the band's eco-friendly housing initiative in the lower Ninth Ward). Ivan Neville took to the keys for War's "Slippin' Into Darkness," where he joined Bell for some excellent vocal harmonizing. During the second chorus of the "Red Hot Mama" that followed, Neville's frenetic play pushed the envelope and provided one of the best musical moments of the weekend. The remainder of the set was stellar, with "Chilly Water" sandwiched around Parliament's "Maggot Brain," which was marked by a spacey intro led by Herring.
Despite the mastery and muscle shown in both sets Saturday night, the encore that would complete this Nolaween run was a short, simple "Pilgrims." While a Panic classic with beautiful lyrics that encapsulate the bonds that bind fan to band, the selection of just this down-tempo number irked many in the audience, with audible groans coming after it was obvious the show was over.
In a dark, dive-y French Quarter bar, two Panic fans discussed the shows as dawn neared. One man harped on setlist selections and the "Pilgrims" encore, while the other's rebuttal consisted of ephemeral notions of vibe and connectivity. Panic is a band that produces passion and lives very close to their fans' hearts. They are "Heroes" to these "Pilgrims" who, in the wake of an experience that brought about a union of Panic, New Orleans and Halloween, will "never let a single memory fade away."
10.31.08 :: New Orleans, LA
Set One: Born On The Bayou, Pigeons, Time Zones, Disco, Diner > Greta > Christmas Katie > Her Dance Needs No Body, Worry
Set Two: Protein Drink > Sewing Machine, Mama Kin, Mercy > Baby, Please Don't Go, Time Waits For No One, Blight, Surprise Valley > Drums > Surprise Valley > Imitation Leather Shoes
E: Proud Mary, Brown Sugar*
* with Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews on trombone
11.01.08 :: New Orleans, LA
Set One: Ain't Life Grand > Who Do You Belong To?, Heroes > Impossible > Radio Child, Three Candles > Already Fried, Holden Oversoul > Love Tractor
Set Two: Walk On The Flood, Slippin' Into Darkness* > Red Hot Mama** > Hatfield, Machine > Barstools and Dreamers, You Should Be Glad, Chilly Water > Maggot Brain > Chilly Water, Henry Parsons Died
* with Ivan Neville on keyboards, Steve Lopez on percussion
** with Ivan Neville on keyboards
Special thanks to Hittin' the Note Magazine and Ian Rawn for use of these photos.
Widespread Panic is on tour now, dates available here.
You can purchase both of these shows at livewidespreadpanic.com.
Continue reading for more images of Panic in NOLA on Halloween...