Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller
Widespread Panic :: 07.09.11 :: Fox Theater :: Oakland, CA
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Widespread Panic is not one of my favorite bands. In fact, they aren’t even in my Top 20. This isn’t said to take a shot at the group, who I’ve admired and enjoyed since Space Wrangler came out in the late 80s and on my public radio shows album cuts like “Blue Indian” were ‘hits’ in that alternate universe. But for whatever reason I’ve never become part of their tribe, a congregation, as evidenced by the throng at the Fox Theater, as dedicated and enthralled as any band has ever held sway over. Talking with friends and new acquaintances in the bar before the show, I was again amazed at the details folks have internalized, the years old debates still raging, the bald display of passion and shared mission to put their shoulders into having as good a goddamn time as could be mustered. Panic fans are a rowdy, faithful bunch and, if one isn’t a wallflower, they’ll scoop you up and make sure you get the proper feel of a Widespread gig, at least in my experience.
|Widespread Panic by Josh Miller|
And ‘my experience’ is why I offer some background on the mindset I walked into The Fox with a week ago. I don’t know the song titles in many instances, I can’t compare versions of “Chilly Water” or any of the other signature tunes, and I’ve only got a handful of previous shows under my belt, though stretching back to 1992 and the inaugural H.O.R.D.E. tours and running up to the band’s High Sierra set last year. So, when I say I was categorically blown away by this band at this gig it perhaps carries a little extra weight. I have no agenda or nostalgia with Panic, and just based on the sheer force and execution of their music this night I can now see how they are THE band for some people.
During the opening quartet – “Angels On High,” “Rebirtha,” “Ribs And Whiskey” and “Dark Day Program” – it hit me how absorbing their sound is, one of those beautiful rabbit holes like jazz or the blues or The Beatles where one could spend their entire listening life, puzzling over components, holding different pieces up to the light, analyzing sequences and questioning the inclusion and exclusion of various songs at various stages. Part of me admires this kind of obsessive focus and even sees the value in it, though the sonic gourmand in me refuses any such monomaniacal intensity. But getting back to the matter at hand, I found myself riding Widespread Panic’s wave better than ever before right from the start, banking off the smooth-fusion inflections of “Angels,” chugging off-footedly to “Rebirtha,” smiling charmed as ever by “Ribs And Whiskey,” a tune that makes one hungry for all sorts of things you can’t tell mama about, and finally swept off into an introspective space full of faces in the trees and feigned innocence during “Dark Day Program.” It’s a remarkable range for under a half hour, and even more impressive is how little any of it evoked any other band.
|John Bell by Josh Miller|
Panic are masters of the cover tune but not because they conjure up the original versions. They find things in other artist’s work they vibe off of and can use as a launching pad for their own “reflections.” However, one of the things I liked best about this particular show was the emphasis on their own material. While the encore take on Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” made a bunch of adults openly wistful, it seemed more appropriate for them to showcase what they’d wrought over the past 25 years. For someone like me curious about what makes this group tick, curious about what makes them such a joy trigger for others, this was a perfect concert. And again, while it’s the norm for music journalism to dissect and explain the ancestry of a band, spelling out the touchstones and placing a band in the popular hierarchy, I found myself stymied on this front even as I tried to push their square pegs into the round holes at The Fox. Oh, there’s a few obvious things – without the Allman Brothers there would be no Panic – but the sound they make right here, right now is utterly their own, a great distillation of American musical strains on par with originators like the Grateful Dead, Return To Forever and Frank Zappa.
The rest of the night, particularly the sweaty, bobbing second set spent just feet from the stage, is a blur of broad strokes, flashes of things within the big picture.
|Dave Schools by Josh Miller|
As usual, I was taken with John Bell’s voice, a cracked, perfectly human thing that reaches into one like Robert Johnson, Leon Russell or Tom Waits, a terrific, unique singer and not a vocalist in the popular American Idol sense. And it fits in so well with the overall sound – a rough and tumble mixture that would likely be cacophony in any other hands – blending with the many, many things going on simultaneously. For all their considerable skill as soloists, it is the voluptuous collective roar of Panic that stands out. It’s the reason there’s no space between the music and the listener when you stand in the same room with them. Their music seizes you, refusing distraction and distance, before permeating into one’s ground water, so to speak.
More flashes: “Tall Boy” is a glorious song to sing alongside a bunch of lit-up fanatics, and “Disco” may be the best song to use that title that owes nothing to the genre of its name. I also realized I could spend the whole show watching Dave Schools as a barometer of how well everything is going – and his bounce and slash were mighty in Oakland. While the focus is absolutely on the music with Widespread Panic, they’ve definitely upped their game in the light show department, and while they move around as much as The Cars onstage, they say a lot with their faces and the subtleties of their body language. The stories underneath the stories in the music are played out in their expressions, especially when they gravitate towards one another, communicating things with their instruments that reach far below skin deep.
This last observation leads to my ultimate conclusion as I stumbled out of the theater:
|Widespread Panic by Josh Miller|
This band is a pleasure to behold.
Whether one knows the ins & outs of it all, whether one sings along to everything or nothing at all, Widespread Panic delivers in such a visceral, immediate way that it would take direct force against what they’re doing to not have a fine time. For all the idiotic turf wars in the jam scene – and like it or not, Panic are a cornerstone – in purely musical terms, this is a banquet for yo’ ears and dancing feet. Big anniversaries have a way of focusing a band, and based on this Oaktown visit I’d say Panic has a firm grip on their legacy, leaving folks, myself included, a bit wobbly legged and ragged in the best of ways as we made our way into the night
Well, I dream of Heaven
But I feel like Hell
The children in their church clothes
Sunday mornin' bells
My head is spinnin'
They're taking their toll
Fox Theater Setlist
Set 1: Angels on High, Rebirtha, Ribs And Whiskey, Dark Day Program, Visiting Day, Henry Parsons Died, The Take Out, Tall Boy > Arleen > Porch Song
Set 2: Disco > Pigeons > Easy Wind > Pigeons, All Time Low > Surprise Valley > Drums > Surprise Valley, Pilgrims, Radio Child > Travelin' Light
E: Trouble, Up All Night > Junior
Continue reading for pictures of Friday’s Widespread Panic show at The Fox...