It's taken me a little while to even be able to really start writing this. Things have been hard lately... and only seem to be getting harder. You see, I realized something after this past weekend... something that is making it difficult to get up in the morning. I guess I realized that I won't ever get to see my best friend again.
I force myself out of bed with wet eyes and the words from "Old Joe," May we live long and lucky echoing in my head. And the pain stays... all day long.
I don't mean to sound melodramatic, but for as long as I care to remember, I always had someone to care for me. No matter how fucked up life seemed to be, no matter how sad it was, no matter what... I could always drive, fly, run or hitch my way to a Widespread Panic show, and at least for a few hours it all made sense. Everything was OK, my friends were all there, and I was home. They spoke to me, they held me, they made me complete, but now it's different. It's gone, the spaceship doesn't fly anymore, and "now the clouds won't stay apart," and I hate it.
I went to the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California (07.26 - 07.28) for three nights of Panic, and I think I finally figured out why I was recklessly sucking whiskey out of the handle after Saturday night's show. And not doing it the way you do it when your partying, but turning it upside down, trying to drown something you just can't look at. The show was good, it was the best of the weekend, (followed by a strong, very touching Sunday afternoon show), but it wasn't the Panic I have developed my relationship with. It wasn't the swarming six-headed mammoth of sound that rips you up from the inside out! I mean, let's be realistic. Lead guitarist, co-founder and the panic part of Widespread Panic, Michael Houser wasn't there. Houser has been ill, dying of cancer back home in Athens. How else do you mourn for the kings of rock and roll, especially southern kings? You drain bourbon, get rowdy and rage like there's no tomorrow. At least that's the way we Spreadheads do it, and if you know Panic you know I'm right.
If there was some glimmer, or flash of light in all this, it must be that the ever-growing respect I have for Panic grew magnanimously over this weekend. The composure they maintained, the quality of music they made, the song selection, commitment to their loyal fans and all around class act performance was spot on for these truly remarkable individuals. We have come to expect so much from them, from raging, long strenuous tours with a completely different show every night, to new material and strong studio work, and they have never let me down. Sure, amongst the plethora of shows I've seen, there were a few duds, but even the duds were better and more explosive than most of the bands I've seen, and this weekend they proved they can do it under extreme circumstances.
I don't know how they did it. I can't seem to get through my day writing, working, and keeping JamBase on track without breaking down and getting some fresh air, and they're on stage playing songs they wrote with Mikey, staring at the spot he used to sit in. To say they are professionals is an understatement.
They came out Friday with "Papa Legba" and instantly it was apparent that things were different. My heart sank, and I couldn't seem to do anything but stare at the stage. But at the same time, it was good. George McConnell who is now playing guitar for Houser can rip, no doubt about it, but it's not the swarming Telecaster madness that my ears have been trained to hear.
The evening progressed with "Wondering" and "Little Lily," but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't really loosen up, I couldn't stop thinking about Houser. By "Blackout Blues" and "Who Do You Belong To?" I started dancing and getting a bit loud, but in retrospect, it didn't hold a candle to the versions I've seen in days gone past. Set I of my first engagement without Houser ended with "Dear Mr. Fantasy," "Stop-Go," and "1 X 1." The "Stop-Go" was good with fitting lyrics, and a few tingles up my back, but the "Dear Mr. Fantasy" found new meaning with McConnell singing the lyrics,
Dear Mr. Fantasy play us a tune,
Something to make us all feel happy,
Do anything take us out of this gloom,
Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy
The words were so poignant they almost made me cry as I screamed every word at the top of my lungs. George McConnell is the one who can make us all happy, he is the one Widespread Panic is calling on to play a tune, to play guitar, to help them push on. And he is doing a marvelous job. Stepping in at a time like this, getting his biggest break, but only in the shadow of a friend having to step down? It must be harder than any of us can even pretend to comprehend, and he is pulling it off with flying colors. How do you have fun when you know a brother is dying? How do you celebrate playing for the biggest crowd you've ever seen when it's only because your fellow guitarist can't play? This is what George is dealing with, but the Panic fans have welcomed him with open arms, as only Panic fans cans do.
Widespread Panic fans are the best fans ever! Plain and simple, no argument. They know every word; they yell, scream, pump their fists and stand by their band like no other group I have ever seen. It is more like a sporting event than a concert. And it's not just any sporting event; every show is the Super Bowl, World Series and Final Four wrapped into one. They literally cheer them on to victory. That's why bassist David Schools has a sticker reading HOME TEAM on the back of his bass, and that's why he looks at the crowd and points to the black and white sticker every night, because they are the home team. Panic fans give them the advantage, and perhaps it's never been more evident.
As McConnell leaned into solos like the Set II opener "Action Man" and a pretty damn good "Fishwater" fans were yelling, "GO GEORGE!" and as JB ripped into "Arleen" screams of, "COME ON JB - GET IT! COME ON!" were ringing in my ear. What other show do you hear people screaming for the band to "GET IT!" It doesn't happen, because no other fan is like a Panic fan.
This loyalty and devotion is what got them through this tough run... the first without Mikey.
The second set came to a screeching halt and more or less fell apart with an attempted "Diner" that almost broke my heart. I remember hearing the opening guitar line to "Diner" and my close friend from Colorado (who has seen most of this tour...and most of the past few years of tour), he hit me on the shoulder and said "this outta be interesting." ["Diner" features Houser] When the song opened up and the screaming Telecaster section was supposed to come slicing in, George couldn't do it. He just looked at JB, smiled, shook his head and played the melody. What could JB say, he smiled with acceptance, shook his head and took it back to the vocals... sliding out of the botched "Diner" with pain.
There were other uncomfortable parts, like "Greta" and the words in "Blue Indian," How long till the medicine takes. But redemption was found in the addition of saxophone (and all around utility man) Randall Bramblett who also added keys, flute, sang and I think even some percussion throughout the weekend. The addition of two instruments (Bramblett and McConnell) used to fill in for the one Houser was affective on songs like "Arleen" and "Time Is Free" but the painful reality that hung with me, and that is sticking to my bones is that it will never be the same.
I don't mean to be too critical, JB, Schools, Todd Nance, JoJo, and Sunny held it together remarkably. Some friends I went with who aren't quite as familiar, or fanatical about WSP as I am were more than impressed, some found it to be in the top shows they've seen. But I guess when you've seen more Panic shows than you can count - and act as the resident Widespread Freak - there is a certain out of control, all encompassing aspect to Panic you come to expect. Even the songs that had some bite were missing that over the edge, mind scrambling push... Houser wasn't there.
Saturday night was considerably better than Friday night... at least for me. It is possible that I was unconsciously less distressed because I had witnessed Panic without Houser the previous evening, but I do think they hit a bit of a stride in the second set.
The Set I opener of "Love Tractor" was a good bid and got the fans going with some heavy crowd participation. But still... ya know... no Houser. Somewhere around "Picking Up The Pieces" with wonderful sax work by Bramblett and the simple perfect lyrics Pickin' up those pieces, I stopped thinking so much, and let the music work on me a bit. I stared at Schools, and realized I had to get into more... if not for me for them... if not for the band, for the fans in my area... in the Schools Zone. I think I realized I had to stop being so selfish. Here they are, playing for us while their best friend is home. I saw pain seeping out of each and every person on stage. JoJo... man JoJo... I saw the pain. I saw him walk off stage, stare off into space... And here I am feeling sorry for myself. As the spine piercing "Aunt Avis" went into "Ride Me High," I started to let it hang a bit. I started to get my Panic on.
Set II was the highlight of the weekend for me. My posse and I seemed to make some kind of silent pact. It was time to give back. It was time to party... like we always do. It was time to put the mourning off until we were alone. Not now, not at the show. Widespread Panic was throwing a party and it was time for us to lead the participation.
Set II looked like this:
Old Neighborhood > Big Wooly Mammoth > Walk On > Christmas Katie > God Was In The Water > Drums > Jam > Worry > Tall Boy > Porch Song
E: Old Joe > Chilly Water
You'll notice all the carrots (>). That's right, they didn’t stop playing the entire set. Every song bled into the other, and the entire night found me with my fist pumping, and my cowboy hat above my head, barking in Schools' direction. The "Old Neighborhood" set the pace, a relatively new song that threw some funk in the mix. It felt like McConnell stopped trying to play what he felt he was supposed to play... and just played. The "Walk On" was great and Bramblett's "God Was In The Water" really reminded me of later Pink Floyd, sort of Division Bell era.
The unabashed, mind bending highlight of the entire three night run was "Worry." I could hear it coming out of "Drums" and it came on with fury. JB strolled out from backstage and the automatic, high-speed percussive foundation was already set.
Worry 'bout my worries
Lately all I seem to do
Worry 'bout my worries
Lately all I seem to do
One day I'm gonna get better babe
Then I'm gonna take a little time to worry
All about you
With JB's whiskey drenched voice screaming about "Worries" and Schools dropping low-end bombs, it seemed to epitomize life at that moment. "Worry" was Berkeley’s reality for those fifteen minutes.
The entire second night was an inspired performance by Widespread Panic. They brought it, and brought it hard. Proving themselves yet again to their faithful fans. I stopped turning to my boys saying "this is pretty good, this sounds all right" and it just was. It was good... it was fun... I guess I stopped thinking, a sign of any good show.
But somewhere deep down it still wasn't my life line... MY PANIC. And that is why we had the encore we did that night. I knew we were going to get something deep - really deep and then a rager. I was thinking "Trouble" into "Chilly Water." (I really was). What they came with was "Old Joe" > "Chilly Water." "Old Joe." Of course...
And someday, somewhere
Some things get hit by lighting
And some things just don't
Hope we live long and lucky
You couldn't say it better. JB's cry for a lucky life. After an engrossing second set - by far the hardest rocking set of music all weekend - they bring it down real low, just for one song, just to remind you that no matter how much fun we're having, no matter how into we're getting... At every single moment Mikey is at home, and we (the band) are holding that every step of the way.
But it is Widespread Panic. They aren't the types to get too sentimental - just enough to jerk a tear - and then EXPLODE into a massive "Chilly Water." They closed the show with power, fury, a bit of anger and a whole lot of Panic.
I saw my boys Panic in a new light that night. I guess it won't ever be the Panic I grew up with but there is a lot there to grow with. They've been there for me, and I'll be there for them. What else can we do?
"You never miss the Sunday show." That's one of our rules, you just don't do it. Panic always brings it on the third day of a weekend run, they're the quintessential professionals, and again - they've never let me down.
Last year Carlos Santana came out. It wasn't to be so fruitful this year but it was a solid show in the California sun. Tom Waits's "Goin' Out West" was a perfect kick off, and they brought it way out, setting the tone for the entire afternoon. "Surprise Valley" at The Greek is something every one should hear. As JB sings, "The spirit it moves in all things," the words seem to resonate with the eucalyptus trees and rising grass hill behind you. Although it wasn't the most raging "Surprise Valley" ever (nothing that weekend was), it held its weight and brought a smile to my face.
The long drawn out "Pusherman" was the highlight of the first set and sent the people in the Schools Zone (up front directly beneath bassist Dave Schools) spinning and singing, maybe even pushing each other a bit as the set closed up with "Bear Gone Fishing" and an appropriate "Climb To Safety."
"I Walk On Guilded Splinters" came midway through the second set, and it was a good bid. It seemed to energize the crowd, but to be honest I kept thinking of Mikey. The sound wasn't wrapping around itself, it wasn't forcing my eyes closed... but it was good. "Guilded" is one of my favorites, one I didn't think they would play, basically because it needs Mikey's Telecaster to make it the dirty bucket of grit it is. Without Houser it was still good... but it hurt at the same time. It made it all too clear that things just won't be like that any more. The beast has been silenced.
The "Rock" that bled out of "Guilded" was solid. JB and Schools stepped it up a notch and pulled the serious Panic fans through a day of mixed blessings - joy in the breath of sorrow, pain in the light of a party. Set II closed with "City Of Dreams," always a touching ode to what we have all learned, what we all value, what we all hold tight when we go home.
The triple encore, "One Arm Steve," "Down," "Travelin' Light," was probably as good as it could have been. It was good for any band, but I think the loss of Mikey was just starting to really seep in. I was thinking of songs like "Vacation," "Blight," and "Airplane." I was thinking that I will never be able to see those songs again... at least not the way I want to. I kept staring at the spot Houser used to sit in, and then over to Schools, and back to JB. It was so real I could see it on their faces. I could taste it.
As the hot "Travelin' Light" came to a close we were satisfied, we were tired, and we were sad. The band walked off stage, everyone but JB. I stood motionless with my arm around my brethren, pain in my heart, and sadness in my eyes. I watched as JB drew close to his microphone. He thanked us again with his southern hospitality, and he looked to the sky, and Widespread Panic spoke the first and only words about Houser. JB turned his eyes to the sky and said, "God Bless You Mikey, We Love You." I couldn't believe it, I yelled "FUCK YA" at the top of my lungs as my boy from Colorado grabbed my shoulder both of us spilling water from our eyes. It was real...and it hurt.
We stood there staring at the stage for what seemed like an hour. We couldn't seem to leave. We didn't want it to change, but we new it already had. I can't say I know where I'm going right now. Things aren't so clear at the moment, a cornerstone of my life has fallen, and I too am falling with it. One thing I am sure of, perhaps the only thing I can say for sure:
Mikey, if love was cure, you'd be back on stage by now... May we live long and lucky...
JamBase | Panic Faithful
Thinking of Mikey