I suppose it's a matter of taste, or maybe it's a testament to what your head can handle. Widespread Panic is not, never was, and certainly never will be a band for those simply looking for a nice Sunday afternoon. Their music is deep, dark, crazy and a bit scary. It enters your body and opens up, leaving you a little different; I mean, just think about the name WIDESPREAD PANIC! I couldn't have said it better myself: all-out, no-holds-barred complete fuckin' mayhem.
That being said, "Go, put your work clothes on" and let's take a walk inside this monster release from three nights at the Classic Center Theater in Athens Georgia.
There are three main ingredients that make this triple disc an instant bomb in my musical rotation. First and foremost is the six-headed beast that is Widespread Panic, with a slew of special guests and their far-reaching, hard-working crew. Second is putting this fierce creature in the belly of their fan base (Athens, GA) and packing a 3,000 person theater to the gills with rabid Spreadheads. Third, and perhaps most important in this case, is the quality of the recordings. Panic is perhaps the toughest band to bootleg, not because of their taping policies but because of the amount of thick, swarming sounds they create. It seems that capturing Widespread is often very hard. The music fights for attention on the recording device, and it becomes very difficult to procure, often leaving a muddy rendition of the night's festivities. So having three discs that the Panic family have multi-tracked for special re-mixing to disc truly is a treat.
The first two discs document the entire show from April 1st, 2000 while the third CD highlights gems from the 2nd and 3rd of April. The obvious place to begin our Widespread dissection of Panic is the opening song of the opening night, "Action Man." These days it's a pretty safe assumption to say that if the boys start off with "Action Man," they came to get down. This is true, but what you should really know about this "Action Man" is that it was the first time they ever played it. For those of you not heavily schooled in WSP lore, this track has turned into a real scorcher with lyrics, but at this point it was an instrumental that highlighted the slow/fast progression of momentum that Panic exemplifies, not to mention huge gut-curdling bass bombs from David Schools.
From "Action Man" they drop seamlessly into a classic, "Chilly Water." Coming off the tail end of the opener, Dave Schools grabs the bass line and guitarist Michael Houser kicks it in with the Telecaster. Rising out of the swarming swamp sound, JB's liquor-soaked voice emerges:
In the easy chair with my boots on
melted whiskey in my hand
I couldn't have been asleep for more than three hours
time to go to work again...
and it's on, full-fledged Panic! The crowd erupts after the hot opener that no one had ever heard transforms itself into one of the all-time great openers. They really wasted no time; five minutes into the show it's already starting to gurgle over, and I can only imagine what it was like inside the venue. Without the boys even thinking about stopping the onslaught, "Chilly Water" opens up a sandwich and puts "Pleas" smack dab in the middle. In the midst of "Pleas" keyboardist JoJo Hermann starts stretching out, dancing lightly on the keys and sending audio ripples over the air waves that quickly ease back into "Chilly Water" without so much as a hic-up.
At this point lead-man John Bell takes it down a notch with the wonderful composition "C. Brown," that finds longtime WSP collaborator and mentor John Keane on pedal steel. From "C. Brown" Panic tips the hat to The Beatles with one of my favorite relatively "newer" songs, an eight-minute-plus version of "Little Lily."
The mid-section of Set I is rounded off with JB crying out in "I'm Not Alone." "One Arm Steve" fires things back up before "Flat Foot Flewzy" goes berserk and closes the set with screams from the stage of "Let's show 'em what Athens has got!"
Although this ends Set I, Disc I continues with an amazing "Surprise Valley" (which is a bit of a surprise because Set I is over, but you get three more songs on your disc!). I tend to feel that if you don't like this track, then you might as well pack it up and look elsewhere. Musically it's top notch: a clean, hollow guitar line and bumping bass work set the scene for a truly uplifting experience. Houser's guitar starts to fly in angles, and JB goes into some of the finer lyrics music has to offer. "Oh, kiss the mountain air we breathe. Good-bye it's time to fly." If that's not an invitation to let it go, then I surely don't know what is. The freak-out fly-high vibe only perpetuates itself as JoJo lays on his keyboard and Schools refuses to let up on the bass. The music moves and travels, opening up space for the funk as JB uses his back-up harmonizing to perfection. Within the wall of sound, enough room is exposed for some watery deep groove-oriented aspects of Panic to bleed into another goosebump growing vocal display by JB:
Fires dance the shadows
Winds whisper the trees
Mother talkin' the water's
Spirit moves, it moves through all things... Spirit moves in all things, spirit moves in all things...
"Surprise Valley" (which is actually the Set II opener) leads to JB's guitar chasing Houser's Telecaster into a JoJo centered "Blight," and an old-school Panic staple "Walkin'" wraps up Disc I in style.
Disc II is the conclusion to this mind-melting evening of Widespread boogie. It begins with "All Time Low" (now mind you, this is actually the fourth song of Set II so it's already in high gear). "All Time Low" is a quick hitter that reeks Panic. The rumblin' tumblin' music careens, building a head of steam like a locomotive with the words:
Who'd shoot first and ask questions later
If anybody's messed with you...
I was talkin' to my teacher
Said I didn't have a clue
I think my principles are reachin'
An all time low...
These images exemplify WSP, with JB growling and the rest of the band chiming in at all the right moments.
Next we have "Mercy" with Chuck Leavell on keyboards, Randall Bramblett on saxophone and JB pleading, begging, yelling for the pain to let up. The nine minutes of "Mercy" with the saxophone, not to mention the subtly perfect keyboard work, are chilling.
Coming out of the heart-wrenching nature of "Mercy," it's back to freak mode as the gears are set for space with the J.J. Cale ode to late night partying, "Ride Me High." This is pretty much where the shit hits the fan, so to speak. Sixteen minutes of "Ride Me High," keyboards dancing, funky Sunny on congas, a lingering guitar line that infests itself in your membranes, a driving drum beat and a bottom end that eats your back bone; THIS IS WIDESPREAD PANIC! Things really get out of control as special guests galore start coming out of the woodwork. Before it's said and done we have Bill Berry on percussion, Charlie Pruet on percussion, Chuck Leavell on keyboards, Count Mbutu on percussion, Dr. Arvin Scott on percussion, Garrie Vereen on percussion, Peter Jackson on percussion, Randall Bramblett on saxophone, Yonrico Scott on drums, and of course don't forget the six members of the band. The sound becomes so thick and rich that even trying to decipher where everything is coming from is futile. You're much better off just surrendering and letting your brain seep out your ear.
For those still breathing, this percussive space ship drips into sixteen minutes of "Drums" before Col. Bruce Hampton emerges for almost twelve minutes of the rare rocker, "Time Is Free." The middle of Disc II - featuring "Ride Me High," "Drums" and "Time Is Free" - is really the crux of the situation. If I had to pick one track from this release to show what Panic can do, it would have to be "Ride Me High." It's psychedelic, hard, nasty, dirty, spacey, deep-deep-deep, and full of emotion.
One of the intangibles that make Widespread Panic so amazing, so worthy of my mental energy time and time again is their song selection. They seem to have an innate knack for what to play and when. The relationship with their dedicated fans is unprecedented in today's music scene. I'd say 90 percent of the people know every word, anticipate every turn, and are blown away by every surprise. So what do they play after forty-five minutes of dark and dirty mayhem but "Climb To Safety." Of course they do... just when things are getting close to too much (and trust me my tolerance for "too much" is higher than most) light breaks through and JB is lending a ladder, with Chuck Leavell on keyboards, John Keane on pedal steel, and Randall Bramblett on saxophone lending a helping hand. The chorus:
Climb to safety
After all that I've been through, you're the only one that matters
Climb to safety
You never left me in the dark here on my own
Climb to safety
Feel the water rising. Let me be your ladder
Climb to safety
I promise you'll be dry and never be alone
unites the crowd in a fist-pumping, glorious set closer.
Disc II, and the show for that matter, end with a "Blue Indian" encore, an introspective, somewhat mellow track that I certainly dig. The "Blue Indian" selection is especially appropriate in light of the absolute destruction that went down throughout the first two discs (and first show of a nasty three night run), but personally I would have liked to see a two song encore (who wouldn't) starting with "Blue Indian" and then completely ripping it open with something heavy like... umm... "Ain't Life Grand," "Blackout Blues" or maybe "Red Hot Mama." But I guess you gotta save something for the next two nights.
I think it's safe to say that the first two discs are HUGE! And you can rest assured that the third disc is equally as hot. Disc III takes nine nuggets from the following two nights at The Classic Center. The selections bounce back and forth from night to night, assembling some what of an all-star dream set.
It jumps off the hook quickly with a "Bear Gone Fishin' > Waker" opener, which was taken from the beginning of Set II on April 2nd. The addition of John Keane on banjo for "Waker" is just enough to push this upbeat, eye-opener over the trees.
The "Dyin' Man" into "Stop-Go" were taken from the third night, but are mixed with a fade from "Waker" well enough that you don't even really think about it.
"Stop-Go" (with Keane on pedal steel) is one of those songs I just can't seem to get enough of. The bass line is infectious, the keyboards move sideways in a light, airy direction as the guitar hangs in the air, supporting JB's touching off-the-cuff, always shifting poetry. I mean, come on... just check out these words:
Used to ride the highway
I used to know where I was going
Now this shady dirt road is feelin' cool beneath my feet
Used to ride on
To get to where I was going in a day
Now I've got to stop
And go and stop and go along the way.
Was a fool to waste my time
Just searchin' my mind
But the more I find
The more I find the time to search
Used to ride on
To get to where I was going in a daze
And now I've got to stop
And go and stop and go along the way.
I connect on an intimate level with the line "was a fool to waste my time just searchin' my mind but the more I find the more I find the time to search." I feel it more or less wraps up a great deal of my life, the mixed blessing of searching for more, with the pain and wonder of looking, learning and leaving. It's one of those things where if you don't get it, I guess you just don't get it.
"Stop-Go" ends somewhat abruptly, as JB ties up the loose ends with the odd words "it's already there" before the "Hatfield"/"Tall Boy" duo from night two ushers in the next segment.
"Hatfield" is another Widespread classic, and personifies the band in many ways. Improvised musical movement have been a Panic calling card for years, and again the ranting and raving, free-wheeling on the spot, train-of-thought word play by JB is perhaps the best in the game. JB is able to paint pictures of days gone by as he opens up a window into a hot summer afternoon sipping home-made beer at your mama's house. Sweating and working, playing and drinking, listening to Vic Chestnut on the porch. This really shows JB as the premier story teller of the day.
Stepping off mama's beer-soaked porch, "Tall Boy" slings some mud and we're still drowning in sex-filled deep Southern sweat. It's a nice dirty summer song, and you can be sure every person in The Classic Center sang every word, as they ran around raising hell:
We're gonna summon the Holy Ghost from the battlefield
And in the morning this old world won't be the same
Won't be the same, Lord!
The "Red Hot Mama" into "Worry" is out of control. Two of my favorites for sure - so nasty, so gritty, so disgustingly good it hurts. Originally written by George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, "Red Hot Mama" is perfect for Panic. Yellin' about a good ole' Southern girl who's looking to get bad, it's the kind of song you don't want your daughter to hear, and during which you better keep an eye on your girlfriend. (Last time I heard this song I saw many shirts flying overhead - and I'm not tallkin' about the boys.)
After "Red Hot Mama" tears the roof off the venue, drummer Todd Nance drops into the sped-up syncopated drum terror of "Worry." As soon as JB starts singing about his worries and Houser's guitar starts crying, you can taste the grit dripping off the speakers. Over the course of the eleven minute freak-out the drums never miss a beat. Schools, Sunny and Nance hold down a rock-solid rhythm section, while Houser's meandering guitar line seams to enter your ear with a burning sensation that's oddly pleasant and painful at the same time. "Worry" is a real rocker that never disappoints.
The three disc set ends with a perfectly placed "Let's Get The Show On The Road." I love seeing "LGTSOTR" close out an epic show (although it was taken from the third song of the second set on April 3rd - a very cool, and unexpected place for sure). Again it exemplifies WSP's ability to pick the perfect song at the perfect time.
As a whole, Live in the Classic City is phenomenal. The first two discs capture an amazing WSP show in a gorgeous theater in Athens, the perfect place to get your Panic on. Disc three is a highlight real from the final two nights at the Classic Center. The choice of songs for disc three are not only excellent selections, but they have picked two consecutive songs at a time so that the flow is kept intact. With their new sound engineer dialed in by this point of 2000, a plethora of guests and a special multi-track mix designed for top quality CDs, this release is a must-have for anyone looking to rage with Widespread Panic.
In a nutshell, my review of the new Widespread Panic triple disc live release is: two gritty thumbs up!
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