Words by: Frank Etheridge | Images by: Ian Rawn
Widespread Panic & The Allman Brothers Band :: 10.10.09 :: BJCC Arena :: Birmingham, AL
"Happy birthday, Allman Brothers! Happy birthday, everybody!"
With these words, Widespread Panic frontman John Bell not only extended warm birthday wishes to the opening Allman Brothers on the occasion of their 40th anniversary, he also delivered, in vintage JB inflection, a succinct summation of a five-hour marathon of music that was nothing short of life-affirming.
Bell's stage banter is a barometer of the band's mood and energy, and on this Saturday night in Birmingham, it revealed a playfulness and joy that shined throughout a night that was more collaboration than co-bill, more celebration than concert. This tour partnering two Georgia-bred juggernauts, which disappointingly bypassed their home state, was long overdue; a dream-come-true for fans of blues-based improvisational rock, that even in consideration of the loftiest, dearly held expectations, met any and all promises. All the players in both bands seemed to share JB's sentiment, with their playing inspired and fueled by an infectious energy that was amazingly levels beyond the quality Friday night show for a stellar two-set, two-encore show Saturday night.
The Allmans kicked the night off with a raucous start featuring Muddy Waters' classic "Trouble No More." It was readily apparent by the time Derek Trucks' searing licks introduced "Can't Lose What You Never Had" that the band brought their A-game. An early highlight came in the song's refrain - "Got drunk/ Burned it down/ Now people ain't that sad" - that encapsulates a key theme of the band. As grizzly veteran frontman Gregg Allman belted out this cautionary tale, his tone became his essence in revealing, on the surface, a defense-mechanism flippancy buoyed by a deeply seeded seasoned wisdom key to Gregg and ABB's survival and perseverance. Been there, done that? This legend certainly has, and on Saturday night, preaching to the choir, showed proof positive that he's even managed to live to tell about it.
"You Don't Love Me" found the band really opening up for some intense improvisation as the double-edged attack of Warren Haynes and Trucks' guitars sailed over Allman's organ. The ubiquitous, but always-appreciated, "Soulshine" came next. With countless Gov't Mule renditions setting its standard for this reviewer, it was a breath of fresh air to have Allman take the lead vocals and give it a toned-down, more traditional blues feel. The uptempo "Stand Back" put the band's groovy shoes on as they danced about a relentless jam that rode on waves of expert drum rolls that propelled even more screeching guitar wails.
| The Allman Brothers w/ JB | 10.10 | Alabama|
Haynes' introduction of JB, something along the lines of, "You guys know JB?" was obviously, sarcastically, rhetorical, but the crowd, significantly larger on Saturday than Friday, roared its response of recognition. In contrast to many of the stops on this tour, younger Spreadheads dominated the audience, though there was mercifully enough gray hair and Daytona Bike Week t-shirts to counterbalance the dready factor and help keep the waves of patchouli wafting through the air at bay. Bell switched verses with Haynes on an excellent cover of Van Morrison's "And It Stoned Me," a poem penned by one of Bell's idols that is ideal for his voice.
Rollicking versions of Allman Brothers staples "Revival" and "Statesboro Blues" were next and preceded the night's highlight: "Mountain Jam." This never-ending instrumental is dismissed by some, primarily those that find the Allmans a classic-rock FM radio act and not the Southern sojourners of truth they are in their best live moments. Sure, "Mountain Jam" can be an endless noodle long enough to go home, cut the grass, and come back without missing a thing, but Saturday night it was a beautiful melody from the start as a long, spacey intro eventually fell sway to a guitar crunch. Drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks worked their kits in amazing syncopation to unleash a powerful, primal rhythm. Col. Bruce Hampton - another Georgia legend that connects more than his fair share of the dots in the non-linear lineage the Brothers and Panic share - graced the stage to belt out a few verses of "Smokestack Lightning," with "Spoonful" teases swirling about it, before an abrupt, but classically Colonel, departure as "Mountain Jam" took over again.
Unlike most shows on this tour, the Allmans as opener were provided a well-deserved encore slot they filled with "Black Hearted Woman," marked by pounding teases of the Grateful Dead's "The Eleven." The lush acoustics of "Little Martha" as set break PA music was icing on the (birthday) cake.
| Oteil Burbridge - ABB | 10.10 | Alabama|
Panic opened their set with an instrumental of their own, "The Take Out," an old school number with a few twists played remarkably well. "Diner" meandered into a brief rap by JB that carried the song out into a flawless "Rock." A monstrous intro provided one of those jaw-dropping Panic moments, reminiscent of their days thriving as a six-headed beast, where all members' individual music cedes to a crazed collective and begs the question, "How the fuck are they making that sound?"
"There's nothing logical 'bout this" was Bell's introduction to DJ Logic's appearance on the subsequent "Dying Man," his effort giving an edgy dimension, a la the 'Til the Medicine Takes version with Colin Butler as DJ.
The silky-smooth funk of War's "Slipping into Darkness" followed and took a nasty, wonderfully dirty Panic turn. A chatty JB then looked about to introduce Gregg Allman. "Can't see him," Bell beamed as he finally made eye contact with Allman. They shared vocals on a cover of Bob Dylan's "Just like a Woman," though Bell's voice was primarily the only audible one. In a gesture evident of the family vibe that has taken shape this tour, the always-humble, appropriately reverent Bell bowed to Allman as he exited stage left.
Bassist Dave Schools cooked up a sinister bass intro to "Bust It Big," which was eventually taken over by the frenetic keys of John "JoJo" Hermann, who deftly moved from ragtime to funk in a fine display of his prowess on a night that found his playing both inspired and free-wheeling. DJ Logic reappeared during "Drums," which segued into a rollicking jam between Schools and percussionists Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz and Todd Nance. A soaring "Airplane" came next, with an incredible, trademark "take-off jam." JoJo again dominated in his intro to "Good People," which he peppered with a minute-long "Dark Bar" rap. An excellent "Junior" closed the set.
| Dave Schools - WSP | 10.10|
The lights at Panic shows are seldom noteworthy (Charlotte 2008 being a MAJOR exception to this due to the insane "lightning storm" during "Drums"). Saturday night, and perhaps its been this way throughout the whole tour with the Allmans, the lights were simply incredible, always spot-on, highlighting individual members during solos and fading to black as jams began, and spinning wildly as they took form. The spotlight was on JB for "Expiration Day" in the encore, the singer awash in purple and red hues as he seemed to serenade the crowd with this paean to true love, a simple life well lived, and the peaceful contentment that exists only in those virtues.
One of Panic's best qualities is their capacity to encompass the entire gamut of human emotion, to express and embrace both the yin & yang. This hallmark reared its head as the misty-eyed serenity of "Expiration Day" moved into a snarling, fierce take on Tom Waits' "Going Out West" to close the show, slapping the crowd on the ass as they headed out the door into an Alabama Saturday night.
The Allman Brothers Band Setlist:
Midnight Rider, Trouble No More, Can't Lose What You Never Had, You Don't Love Me, Soulshine, Stand Back, And It Stoned Me*, Revival, Statesboro Blues, Mountain Jam > Smokestack Lightnin'** > Mountain Jam
E: Black Hearted Woman
* w/ with John Bell, guitar & vox; James van de Bogert, drums
** w/ with Colonel Bruce Hampton, vocals
Widespread Panic Setlist:
The Take Out > Diner > Rock > Porch Song, Dyin' Man*, Slippin' Into Darkness**, Just Like A Woman***, Bust It Big**** > Drums > Airplane > Pilgrims > Goodpeople > Dark Bar > Goodpeople > Junior
E: Expiration Day > Goin' Out West
* with DJ Logic on turntables
** with Marc Quinones on percussion, Warren Haynes on guitar
*** with Gregg Allman on vocals
**** with Warren Haynes on guitar
Continue reading for more images of Panic and the Allmans in Alabama, including shots from the previous night...