Words by: Mary Catherine D'arcy : Images by: Ian Rawn
Widespread Panic :: 12.31.11 :: Time Warner Cable Arena :: Charlotte, NC
Full gallery below review!
Fans descended on Charlotte amid talk about what 2012 will bring for Widespread Panic. During 2011, J.B. and the boys played a whopping 75 “plugged in” shows. Those dates included Austin City Limits, Japan’s Fuji Music Festival, and an intimate, but televised, return to the celebrated and newly renovated Georgia Theatre in Athens, Georgia. Yet, according to J.B., Widespread’s upcoming, aptly named Wood Tour will be all-acoustic. Some fans are anxious about the transition: Jimmy Herring has only played electric guitar in his five-plus years with the band. On the other hand, some followers reminisce about Widespread’s profound “Sit and Ski” tour of 1996, when Michael Houser was still playing guitar. Either way, all stops on the Wood Tour are sold out, leaving many fans to wonder if they will have any opportunity to see the new acoustic Widespread Panic in 2012.
|Widespread Panic by Ian Rawn|
Widespread’s one-night celebration in Charlotte proved to be a loaded, lengthy show (three sets and an encore) that covered all the bases. The band delighted the crowd with both older and newer material, and they included interesting covers by artists such as Al Green, Howlin’ Wolf, and Allen Toussaint. In addition, they gave a great big nod to the Athens music scene by incorporating long-time collaborators John Keane and Randall Bramblett, as well as songs by Daniel Hutchens (Bloodkin), Eric Carter (Bloodkin), Jerry Joseph, and the late Vic Chesnutt. Unquestionably, the show incorporated all the elements that followers have come to expect from those road warriors.
A one-night-only tour stop means the band has to showcase songs that appeal to casual Panic fans, as well as tour veterans calling for obscure songs and singular performances. As the crowds continued to squeeze into the Time Warner Cable Arena, the band launched the performance with “Chilly Water” and “Imitation Leather Shoes,” well-known, jam-driven songs that everyone could sing along with. Next was Neil Young's “Mr. Soul,” which featured a heavy solo by Herring. Then came two newer songs in fair rotation, “Shut Up and Drive” and “Saint Ex,” both from Dirty Side Down, the band’s 2010 album produced by John Keane.
|Jimmy Herring by Ian Rawn|
An interesting choice from the first set was “Slipping into the Darkness.” It’s a War cover that Widespread has made their own. For those unfamiliar with War, the band produced the hits “Low Rider,” “Spill the Wine,” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” “Slipping” is a perfect vehicle for J.B.’s raspy yet soulful vocals, and he hit all the notes. The Megablasters (with Randall Bramblett) also joined the band on this number, and they remained onstage to close out the first set with The Band’s “Chest Fever.” Whether you approved of the myriad of song choices or not or the venue’s lacking acoustics, there was at least a little something for everyone packed into the first set.
Even though Widespread Panic is not a stranger to acoustic performances, 2012 will mark the band’s departure from an electric lead guitar focus in favor of all-acoustic shows. If the acoustic set from the New Year’s performance is a snapshot of what to expect from the upcoming Wood Tour, then fans can look forward to seeing J.B. on both his Gibson guitar and his Washburn mandolin, and likely performances of some uncommon songs like “Degenerate” and “L.A.”
As he has in years past, Herring stayed plugged in for the “acoustic” set and while seated he used effects to generate a more acoustic friendly sound. Moreover, Keane rejoined the band for the set’s second half. He played pedal steel guitar for “C. Brown,” “Blue Indian,” and “Ain't Life Grand.” Longtime fans appreciated “C. Brown,” and J.B.’s devotees enjoyed seeing him play mandolin on “Ain’t Life Grand.”
|John Bell by Ian Rawn|
Also during the second set, Widespread paid tribute to Bloodkin, another Athens band enjoying their silver anniversary. Specifically, J.B. led the band in “Henry Parsons Died” and the infrequently played “Quarter Tank of Gasoline.” At the end of “Quarter Tank,” J.B. credited Hutchens and Carter, exclaiming, “God bless Bloodkin!” Indeed, both Widespread and Bloodkin have occupied the Athens music circuit for years, and it’s hard to imagine where Widespread would be today without Bloodkin, and vice versa.
Despite the brevity of the acoustic set, it gave the audience a practical impression of what to expect from the band in 2012. Fans should look forward to some songs they may not have had the pleasure of hearing before, and possibly even more of Hutchens and Carter’s lyrically-rich fare. Fans can also get excited about hearing some established numbers that have been reworked to suit an acoustic performance.
The Third set, which ran for over 90 minutes included performances of unique cover songs, including Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Tail Dragger.”. Interestingly, although Widespread has covered other Howlin’ Wolf tunes such as “Smokestack Lightning,” the band’s performance of “Tail Dragger” on New Year’s Eve marked only its second live performance of that song. Later in the set, Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down,” was another lively cover choice. If these cover choices indicate what to expect from 2012, fans can anticipate blues and R&B-type patterns that leave room for improvisational solos.
|Widespread Panic by Ian Rawn|
To close out the performance, the band delivered a mighty five-song encore: “Disco” into “Surprise Valley” into “Pilgrims” (supposedly one of Jimmy’s favorites) back into “Surprise Valley” into “Climb to Safety.” Overall, this was a solid encore that proved that the band can still deliver a lengthy, unrelenting performance that shows no signs of fatigue.
And just like that, Widespread capped off two and a half decades of live music that includes their rise to fame, perseverance through numerous tragedies, and their ability to continue to break new ground as a band. It goes to show that after 25 years, this band still continues to wow new fans without alienating its core audience, which is accustomed to the sounds of Michael Houser’s lingering lead. For those fans lucky enough to attend the Wood Tour, the format of the performances may be different, but Widespread’s technical prowess is sure to continue to captivate audiences throughout this next phase of their career.
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