Words by: Frank Etheridge | Images by: Ian Rawn
Widespread Panic :: 10.31.10 :: UNO Lakefront Arena :: New Orleans, LA
In a town where truth often out-freaks fiction, the serendipitous convergence of football, festivals and fun the last weekend of October in New Orleans – coupled with warm, gorgeous weather and clear skies – proved why this is the best American city to celebrate Halloween. Elegant yet decadent, gothic yet Catholic, the City of New Orleans thrives within its paradoxes, particularly during All Hallows' Eve. Bustling with traffic and ringing with cash-register sales, NOLA on October 31st could not have provided a better backdrop for NBC's primetime coverage of a game between the last two Super Bowl champs, the Saints and Steelers, with a circuses-not-bread feast that also featured countless celebrations, live music 24/7, the Voodoo Experience, and a Mardi Gras-scale parade.
|WSP Fan Love by Ian Rawn|
Commenting on his city's capacity – on merits of its haunted vibe, love of costumes and penchant for excess - to corner the Halloween market, parade organizer and float creator extraordinaire Blaine Kern told the Times-Picayune: "Everybody should want to come here for Halloween…Right now, Halloween is a $6 billion industry. In five to six years, I see it being $100 billion."
Such unchecked optimism is only buoyed by Voodoo inking a deal to remain in a resurgent City Park through 2019, meaning dependable, significant revenue for a public green space doggedly recovering from Katrina (i.e. having planted 4,000 trees to replace the 2,000 lost in the storm). Peering back toward the genesis of all this spooky synergy, Voodoo founder Steve Rehage has acknowledged in interviews that Widespread Panic's annual NOLAweek run, and the profitable need to create 72 hours of entertainment to nourish the carnival surrounding its concerts, really started it all.
The Georgia-based band returned for a tradition that began 13 years ago, brewing its own perfect storm along the southern shores of Lake Pontchartrain with this trifecta of goodies in its gumbo: A tour-closer. In New Orleans. On Halloween.
Entering a stage of sublime, subdued décor evoking bayou hoodoo with graves, Spanish moss and palmetto shrubs, WSP bassist Dave Schools was greeted with a roaring response to his big pimpin' white suit. "You know when you say, 'Trick or treat,' you know the answer is going to be trick," Schools said.
Tricking, treating and tripping the light fantastic, Widespread Panic then commenced four face-melting hours of music and delivered an A+ performance worthy of placement on the pedestal with such NOLAween gems as 1998 and 2000.
While a sinister, yet sensuous, reverb hung in the UNO Lakefront Arena rafters all night, the first set kicked off with a nod to Ozzy Osbourne, who was performing just a few miles south down Bayou St. John at Voodoo, with a cover of Black Sabbath's "Fairies Wear Boots." A rollicking "Big Wooly Mammoth" followed, this now-rare number showing John "JoJo" Hermann (dressed as Jason from the Friday the 13th movies) in fine form and the audience mercifully restrained in tossing just a few benign lighters as JoJo sang, "Somebody throw me a fire / So we can burn New Orleans down." "BWM" segued into a musical space of spun cohesion, an abstract weirdness giving way to definite riff on Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." Jamming this into "Worry" and through "Machine >Barstools," Panic kept the mood dark and intense, but then switched gears with "Visiting Day," a long-standing staple that's been reworked into a upbeat, catchy tune on the latest album, Dirty Side Down.
|Jimmy Herring by Ian Rawn|
A scarecrow for the evening, guitarist Jimmy Herring tuned up to playfully strum the bluesy twang that opens Muddy Waters' "You're Gonna Miss Me." Herring's interplay with JoJo, combined with Bell's enjoyment in singing the blues, made this cover shine. Many WSP fans perhaps overextend logic when trying to decipher hidden themes in the Halloween cover selections, but it's impossible not to tie this to recent rumor and innuendo that the band, marking its 25th anniversary in 2011, will possibly be on hiatus after next year.
Oozing into a melt preceding JB's rap in "Diner," the light show, superb all weekend, transformed UNO into a Dali-esque landscape - waves of purple and red cresting above the crowd; kaleidoscopic rainbows covering the floor audience; green floral arrangements twirling behind the band. Evoking departed friend Vic Chestnutt, JB whispered lyrics from his "Sewing Machine": "I wanna be a vampire on Halloween…Mama makes the cape on the sewing machine…sewing machine…sewing machine…SEWIN' MACHINE!"
Split down the middle between his typical rock-star garb and flowing women's clothing and a wig, Bell jumpstarted the second set by belting out the best sing-along about sexual ambiguity: The Kinks' "Lola." Another highlight came with the thick, percussive madness led by Schools and percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz that moved into "Rock."
|John Bell by Ian Rawn|
"Now it's on," Schools prophesized as longtime Panic friends and collaborators the Dirty Dozen Brass Band took the stage for covers of the Talking Heads' "Swamp" (debuted on this stage by WSP and DDBB on 10.31.98) and Bill Withers' sexy romp "Use Me." Trumpeter Efrem "E.T." Towns masterfully blew his horn to psychedelic heights, a cherry on top of seeing these two legendary bands share the same stage in New Orleans once again, reveling in their pure bond and joyous musical compatibility.
Opting not for the usual classic rock anthem and paying homage to a contemporary band younger in age, Panic's next cover was The Black Keys' "Strange Times," a rocker perfect for WSP in tone and muscle, though dragged out too long here. The wistful, blissful "Jack" reeled the madness back in before the band pummeled the hard-rocking "All Time Low" to the point that Schools' pants fell down around his ankles. Not missing a beat, the Notorious DAS kept rocking in his drawers, bounding about the amps behind his rig. To close the set, JB caressed the mic, nailing the harmonica intro to Led Zeppelin's "Bring It On Home" before Herring teed off on its hallmark Jimmy Page riff, knocking that sum-a- bitch out of the park.
With an encore 32 minutes long, Panic pushed 1 a.m. with the DDBB joining them for "Christmas Katie" (which they performed on for the Til the Medicine Takes studio version), followed by a monster "Superstition," which the two bands also first debuted on this stage together in 1998. A funktastic, though a bit meandering, as it clocked in over 11-minutes, take on Stevie could only by topped by Panic's paean to all things New Orleans, "Fishwater." Halfway during this closer, someone must have flipped Schools' insanity switch, as a thump of the thumb turned this version into a jaw-dropping monster, while JB's free-verse "God bless, New Orleans" wail dotted the show's exclamation point.
While Widespread Panic's annual NOLAween run is undoubtedly an engine of economic development in New Orleans' drive to carve its slice of the pumpkin pie, who knows if this lucrative tradition will be counted in Caesar's kingdom. Or is the truth found in the lyrics to "Jack": "Where the fools go, the rich don't mind." Perhaps NOLAween is best destined to continue its drift outside of the quantified, existing in a realm of freaks, geeks, light shows and adults as Sesame Street characters that digs deeper than the wallet as it walks, erect and proud, on the march through consciousness evolution.
Set I: Fairies Wear Boots > Big Wooly Mammoth > Inagoddadavida Jam > Worry, Machine > Barstools And Dreamers, Visiting Day, You're Gonna Miss Me, Disco > Diner > Porch Song
Set II: Lola, Pilgrims > Tall Boy > Rock, *Swamp > *Use Me, Strange Times > Drums > **The Other One Jam > Jack, All Time Low, ***Bring It On Home
E: *Christmas Katie, *Superstition > *Fishwater
* with Members Of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
** with Terrence Higgins From The Dirty Dozen Brass Band On Percussion
*** with John Bell on harmonica
Continue reading for the full gallery of photos from Widespread NOLAween 2010...