Beers, Blazin' & Beads: Widespread Panic
When I told a friend that I was seeing Widespread Panic at the Orpheum last Friday, he did a double-take, flashing a look of derision that suggested that I'd told him I was seeing Fergie live--re-defining "Fraggle Rock" for the new millenium (see pictures from her tour here.) Of course, I understood my friend's bewilderment. This is the year 2007. It's the year of unwarranted presidential pardons. It's the year of Paris Hilton going to jail. It's the year of Mims. It's the year of the apocalypse. The point, if I indeed have one, is that this isn't the coolest time to be a "jam" fan.
If this were the late 90s and we were taking gravity bong hits inside a dorm room in Burlington, jam bands would probably make more sense. By contrast, those seem like the salad days of the Jam-era, a time when 2-ton dinosaurs like Phish, Panic, String Cheese, Moe, and the inexplicably popular acoustic yodels of Dave Matthews, stalked the dormitories of every east coast college kid with a bong and an eighth to burn. But Phish is dead. No one ever really liked Moe in the first place. String Cheese are on their final victory lap, (inevitably, choking on the second-hand smoke). And as for Dave Matthews, the Onion story: Dave Matthews-Not that Into himself Any More aptly summed him up.
Which leaves Athens-based Panic as the last hope of the old guard. A band who for better or worse has been unfairly saddled with the "jam band" tag, thanks to a knack for, it-sounds-really cool-when-you're-stoned guitar solos. But aside from being a guitar band that jams, Panic aren't at all like the former jam kings, Phish. Where Phish fused the Dead's genre-mashing and skill at covers to form a wholly new, light-hearted sound, Panic takes its clues from the gritty dirt-under-the fingernails, Southern rock that Duane and Greg Allman cooked up nearly 40 years ago.
The "Widespread" Portion of the Name Concerns Bassist and Horatio Sanz Look-A-Like, Dave Schools (Second From Right)Watching Panic on-stage strikes you with the feeling that you're seeing rock n' roll as it was meant to be played, primal, bluesy and raw. A six-piece in perfect harmony, the band rifles off otherworldly guitar licks, rollicking keys, and stadium-sized snare hits, backed by John "JB" Bell's whiskey-soaked croon. Rocking the tiny art-deco Orpheum, Panic's powerful combination of energy and sound pushing your wig back, flooding into your ears. Loud.
Of course, at this point, you might be wondering how I've even made it four paragraphs writing about a Widespread Panic show without even mentioning any form of illicit substance. Good point. Attending a Panic show sober is like attending a Klan meeting nude. You feel even more out of place than you'd normally feel. Not to mention there is the high probability that you'll leave the room feeling a great deal more disturbed by humanity than you ever thought possible.
The place is a veritable pharmaceutical wonderland. Dudes knife through the crowd shouting, "doses," "rolls," "molly." People get carried out on stretchers. Post-show, the parking lot abruptly turned into a whippet party. I kid you not. As a friend pointed out, "what is this, 2001?" These people know how to party. And they do it well, giving off an air of conviviality and affability sorely lacking in Los Angeles. Everyone smiles, carrying strong drink in their hands. It's the sort of scene where you're as apt to run into one of LA's best bloggers, as you are to stumble into a drugged out hippie, begging you to give up your backstage pass just to sit next to Panic lead guitarist Jimmy Herring for two minutes.
Tireless performers, they played three hours, pouring every ounce of energy that they had into the show. And they've done it night in and night, with a different set list each night, for 20-plus years. I'm not about to drop everything and follow these guys x-country, but I can't fault anyone for wanting to do so for at least a week or two. Just be forewarned that if a guy comes up and asks you to buy some "Molly," he isn't trying to sell you bootlegged DVD's of the Breakfast Club.
MP3: Widespread Panic-Live @ Bonnaroo 6/17/07 (left-click)