Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Widerspread at the Filmore
Widespread Panic – The Fillmore - Silver Spring, MD 1/25/12
By Greg Maniha
I confess. January 25th of 2012 marked the first time I have ever seen Widespread Panic. I know, I know, let the browbeating begin, but before you start, please understand this has never been the intention. As a lifelong deadhead with 100 shows under my belt, I have wanted to see this band for a very long time now. Sometimes, one can be a music historian that lives for hearing every note and witnessing every moment they can so long as life doesn’t get in the way. Somehow, life just got in the way of my desire to see Widespread Panic. I never had much of a chance to absorb their recorded output, but the live “Light Fuse, Get Away,” “Till The Medicine Takes,” and “Don’t Tell The Band” were always welcome additions to my collection. I was in love with their take on the punk rock Grateful Dead staple, “Cream Puff War” upon first listen. Indeed, it has always made perfect sense for me to see this band in action, but they just ended up on that list of “maybe one day I’ll get a chance” bands. On January 25th, 2012 in Silver Spring, Maryland, that chance finally came in the form of the first ever all acoustic Widespread Panic “Wood” tour.
The presence of the Wood tour is, to put it mildly, unorthodox. Less than a month ago, Widespread Panic rang in the last night of their 25th year. Taking the stage on New Years Eve in North Carolina surrounded by the unique soundscape that defines them, 2012 was already pre-determined as the year of the hiatus. This is a word Panic fans do not wish to hear. The very thought of a 25 year touring outfit that has experienced success and tragedy while building one of the most loyal fanbases rock and roll has seen since The Grateful Dead taking such a thing as a hiatus is not a desired direction for the ones that love you the most, but in true Panic fashion, one more tour, even a stripped down micro 11 show tour such as the Wood tour, needed to take place.
Widespread Panic is that rare anomaly that takes every note of every composition from the first bar to the last pitch and transforms it into something unlike anything else. From the first wave of modern day jambands Widespread Panic participated in creating to the veteran statesman of the genre they remain a part of today, you will never find another band with this sound. To categorize their music as southern rock, blues, folk rock, hard rock, or a combination of the above is a fruitless effort. During this slow and graceful 25-year ascent into the jamband elder’s council, it’s the individual sound that has earned them perhaps the most generationally diverse lifelong audience. Both Phish and the Dave Matthews Band are touring juggernauts that command immense respect for their loyal audiences, but their audiences have grown with them rather than becoming them. Wayward deadheads and Allman Brothers Band fans didn’t necessarily gravitate towards Phish or DMB once they lost their musical and spiritual leader in Jerry Garcia. They were either supporters or detractors. When the community at large arbitrarily bestowed Phish as the torch carriers for his loss, the reaction was, for the most part, cool and standoffish. It was that unassuming steady buildup of Widespread Panic that ultimately won the hearts and minds of deadheads from all generations. Grateful Dead fans from the early days to the last days found an antidote for their aching soul in Widespread Panic, and they’re staying around for the duration. To be sure, Widespread Panic has much in common with the Grateful Dead, but they remain their own outfit. Like the Grateful Dead, they are one of the greatest cover bands ever assembled, but once again, this doesn’t define them. Both Widespread Panic and The Grateful Dead have the gift of turning every cover song into an original without intention. They are fans of American Music and intend to pay tribute to that which they love the most, but as an unintended side effect, their tribute becomes a piece of the signature identity. Among many artists across the spectrum of American music, Widespread Panic has covered the Grateful Dead from their origins to the present time but the only way you would ever know is familiarity with the original composition. It’s a Grateful Dead composition, but you’re hearing the Widespread Panic interpretation. From the widest range of tribute material to the formless improvisations that represent their on stage communication, Widespread Panic commands tremendous influence within the genre created over twenty years prior to their formation. The embrace and blessing from the ones that paved the way for them to help define it as a genre only adds depth to that influence.
Onstage at the Fillmore Silver Spring, the stage setup resembles a southern back porch more than a concert. The furniture alone looks older than the band and audience alike. The appearance of amplification is present but with minimal appearance. It almost seems as if the intention is to create a calming effect on the truly excited and well-travelled audience that shows no signs of remaining calm once the band takes the stage. Despite the best efforts of Widespread Panic, the Wood tour has begun with the energy of a rock and roll event.
When Vocalist and Guitarist John Bell finally took the stage armed with his mandolin, the enthusiasm deafens his introduction. Many have waited for the tour few will attend and nothing is going to minimize the joy of the lucky few. The overall theme of the performance was the combination of that back porch jam complete with western saloon piano, a campfire gathering, and a jam spectacular with a rock and roll heart. It’s clear upon the opening notes of “Ain’t Life Grand” that this acoustic performance will be a rebellious spike in your drink and a new incarnation of Widespread Panic. “Blue Indian” had John Bell switching to guitar as bassist Dave Schools effortlessly provided the backbone with a smile. Guitarist Jimmy Herring has never played acoustic with Widespread Panic prior to this tour, but he couldn’t sound more at home as he took the lead with his virtuoso abilities. “Coach” gave us the lead vocals of drummer Todd Nance along with the continued back porch session theme while the JJ Cale composed “Ride Me High” brought keyboardist John “Jo-Jo” Herman into the lead vocal spotlight with a jamrock psychedelic extravaganza. Unplugged or not, the improvisation and dance took center stage by this point. “Ride Me High” transitioned into mellow rocker “C Brown” complete with a delightfully tacky 70s light show that briefly changed the shirt of Dave Schools into an over the top pattern explosion complete with giant collar. This is what 70s mellow rock should have sounded like when it first surfaced on the American landscape. The campfire gathering resurfaced with “Old Joe” while the psychedelic ambience returned with the combination of “Party At Your Mamas House” and “Stop Breaking Down Blues.” “Jack” served as a sensual slow burn that channeled the spirit of gone but not forgotten guitarist Michael Houser while the Rolling Stones influenced “Makes Sense To Me” showcased the low thump of Dave Schools accompanied by the percussion of Domingo S. Oritz before building up to a melodic piano lead by Jo-Jo. We’re now halfway through the entire Silver Spring run with one more set to go before it’s a piece of history.
The opening of the second set continued the slow burn with blues driven “Let’s Get This Show On The Road.” This transitioned into the percussion centered slow train rhythm of “Shut Up And Drive” complete with Farfisa solo by Jo-Jo. “Tickle The Truth” conjured up a minor key dominated flamenco lead by Jimmy Herring held together by a crowd-pleasing Dave Schools moment to cherish. The somber minor keys were replaced by the upbeat “True To My Nature” that held on to the moment through a “Space Wrangler” which appeared to be the drinking anthem for the night in the eyes of the audience. The most emotional moment of the evening surfaced with the classic Neil Young penned “Don’t Be Denied.” The entire audience hung on to every lyric as John Bell told the original story about a boy who’s father walked out on him, faced school bullying alone, found a kindred spirit in music, and became a legend. It’s a story so many musicians can tell and Widespread Panic conveyed it as beautifully as one could ever expect. After the crowd favorite “Airplane,” came the debut of the John Lennon anthem “The Ballad Of John and Yoko” followed by the combination of “Mercy” and the set closing “Imitation Leather Shoes.” The triple encore block began with “Trouble” before returning to the legendary Neil Young featuring a sweet slide solo by John Bell with “Are You Ready For The Country?” Finally, the evening capped on a note of high energy with the up-tempo blues of the Jerry Joseph penned “Climb To Safety.”
Part back porch jam, part campfire gathering, and part psychedelic embrace, Widespread Panic delivered enough heart and soul to endure even a yearlong hiatus. The next task is to actually attempt to endure it, and 2013 cannot surface fast enough.