Remembering Widespread Panic’s First Halloween In New Orleans

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How do traditions get started? How does something go from a thing to a THING? For Widespread Panic‘s annual Halloween run at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, it started with a instant-classic John Bell howl of “Good evening FREAKS!” That was how their first trip to the mid-sized University of New Orleans basketball arena in 1997 started before the whole band launched, already at full volume, into a show-opening…tradition-opening “Postcard.” I don’t want to leave; I don’t never, never want to leave…

Oh sure, the Panic Halloween show proper stretched back much further than that and always was a dirty rock party of jams, repertoire shelf-dusting and inspired cover bust outs. Indeed, the previous year in Chicago may have been a better show than the 1997 gig on paper. But from the 1997 show through Mikey Houser’s tragic death, “Widespread + NOLA + Lakefront = dark voodoo magic” was a formula whose proof no Panic fan would argue against. This was when the thing became the THING. That gym became something special on those nights: the whole room was general admission, the stage decorated in some fashion, no matter where you were dancing, the bar was only a hop, skip and a boogie away, the security seemed more interested in keeping the party going and everyone in the place felt like your bestest buddy ever.

Like the buzzing crowd, the band also was dressed in costume. (I should also note that the show was opened by Galactic – my first time seeing them – and they had the best costumes of the night, wearing some sort of low-tech silver space suits and lights…a great introduction to the band that was about to break through) In 1997, JB’s costume was Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist of the novel A Confederacy Of Dunces — a most literary and John-Bell-ish tribute to the city of New Orleans if I’ve ever seen one. The important thing to realize when listening to the tapes is that Bell had basically a homemade fat suit on (pillow in shirt) and a hunter’s cap and played the show next to a hot dog cart. If my memory serves correctly, Dave Schools was a vampire and they basically just wrapped some Christmas lights around Michael Houser as he took his traditional seat and played his ass off. I can’t think of anything more perfect. Yes, this town is nuts!

In later years, the band had multiple nights to spread around the jams, covers and general mayhem. The ‘97 show was more of a proto-NOLA hit, a mid-tour show with a little extra mustard. Still, the band didn’t waste any time finding the swamp magic. The first set was chunky with dirty Panic, everything felt just right for the occasion: that “Postcard,” the NOLA-themed “Gradle,” with Houser playing relentlessly throughout. The highlight was the “Big Wooly Mammoth” > “Diner” > “Four Cornered Room” stretch which gave all parties involved a chance to summon the voodoo spirits percolating in the room, particularly the rare War cover which always gave Bell an opportunity to go into his deep, séance channeling mode.

There were four big cover bust outs over the course of the show. The first was Bill Withers’ “Use Me” which was the only one to make a lasting impression on the repertoire and with good reason. Riding Schools bass playing, Panic owned this from the first rendition, quickly cleaning up the dark atmosphere with some Crescent City funk. The second started with the second cover, Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla” which featured a hilarious homage to Spinal Tap, as a small toy Godzilla was lowered “Stonehenge” style as the band blasted everyone’s ears to bits. The rest of the second set was one continuous, relentless assault of Pure Panic circa 1997. If you’re interested in listening to a band starting to approach its peak, 10/31/1997 is just about that time for Widespread Panic. There was very NOLA-appropriate balance of funk and swamp rock, WSP showing a talent for both, often at the same time. Speaking of New Orleans, Schools reminded everyone that “Rebirtha” used to be titled “Apologies to George Porter Jr.” Otherwise, highlights abound.

The show ended in manic fashion with a three-song encore that started with the only ever version of The Who’s “Long Live Rock,” which was fun, sure. But it was the closing take on The Doors’ “L.A. Woman” that I remember best, particularly JB howling “Mr. Mojo Risin’!” like a man possessed (still dressed like Ignatius, which made it all the more surreal). After a show like that, there was no doubt that this was now a THING. The Halloween weekends of 1999 and 2000 were some of the best times I’ve ever had, period; the combination of the music, the setting, the people, the whiskey, and that indescribable something in the air…thinking back puts a huge smile on my face. Don’t never, never want to leave…

Head here to stream audio of WSP’s October 31, 1997 show.

Setlist (via Everyday Companion)

Set One: Postcard, Travelin’ Light, Gradle, Big Wooly Mammoth > Diner > Four Cornered Room, Use Me, Coconut, Blackout Blues

Set Two: Godzilla, Arleen > Hatfield, Walkin’ (For Your Love), Conrad, Rebirtha > Pusherman > Drums > Heaven > Porch Song

Encore: Long Live Rock, Greta > L.A. Woman

[First ‘Godzilla’, First ‘L.A. Woman’, Only ‘Long Live Rock’, First ‘Use Me’; “Oh my God, they killed Kenny! You bastards!” by Dave during ‘Godzilla’; Galactic opened; Last ‘Heaven’ – 10/13/95, 214 shows]

[Originally Published: October 26, 2014]

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