Widespread Panic :: 11.13.09 :: Fox Theater :: Oakland, CA
It had been over two years since perennial road warriors Widespread Panic played a non-festival show in the Bay Area. Shacking up at the gorgeous Fox Theater in Oakland, CA for a three-night run, it was the second show on Friday the 13th that stuck out as special. There was nothing wrong with Thursday or Saturday's shows, other than being perhaps a bit flat, but Friday's concert was a reminder of why this band has one of the most dedicated fan bases in all of music and it was a prime example of why these fans continue to drop it all and chase Panic around the country. During the band's peak, somewhere between 1997 and 2002, shows like this popped up frequently, and for many seasoned touring vets, Friday's show was one of the better since band co-founder Michael Houser passed away.
Clocking in at around an hour and a half, the lengthy first set featured Bob Dylan ("Solid Rock"), Tom Waits ("Goin' Out West"), Neil Young ("Don't Be Denied"), and Jerry Joseph ("Light Is Like Water"). The tone was set immediately with Jimmy Herring's ominous guitar bleeding the dark notes to first song Junior" and before long it was Jojo Hermann's dirty Clavinet that pushed the song into surprisingly funky terrain. Hermann would prove to be the catalyst throughout the night, leaning on his keys, tempting a Friday the 13th Superstition" (which never surfaced) and creating spacey interludes so that the momentum rarely slowed.
During old school instrumental Happy," Herring was channeling vintage Garcia as he pulled notes from the sky and showed incredible control of his warm tone. Frontman John Bell grabbed hold of the crowd during Pigeons," belting out some of the most poignant lyrics in rock: We've all been waiting/ Wondering, will we ever know the truth/ What it's like washing windows when you know there are pigeons on the roof." The world is a harsh, unforgiving place and we all know it. We wake up and struggle to find a moment of peace, we wash the windows of our life only to turn around and find shit caked all over them once again. But we push on. We clean up and fight another day. It's all we can do.
Another old gem, Walkin'" was a revelation. Taking the loping tempo and twisting the notes until they were unrecognizable, Panic landed in one of the night's longest and most impressive jams that may have been influenced by the recent tour with the Allman Brothers. With bassist Dave Schools working overtime to keep the wheels glued on, Herring and Hermann were free to fly loose and light, dancing around one another, dipping into fast-paced duels and spacious feather-weight cascades.
If the set ended there it would have been a great first set, but then emerged one of the most emotional songs in the band's repertoire, Neil Young's Don't Be Denied." With strong parallels to Panic's history, as JB sang, Pretty soon I met a friend who played guitar," the Fox erupted. One look at the capacity crowd and it was clear many were feeling it. Tears were forming, arms were wrapped around shoulders, and if you stared long enough, maybe you could still see Mikey Houser sitting up there on the stage.
Clearly this had to be the end of the set. Don't Be Denied" is generally a first, last or encore song. Wrong again. Out comes Jerry Joseph for a blistering Light Is Like Water." They've previously only played the song eight times and it had been over a year since it last showed up. A meaty middle section featured a three guitar attack with Herring, JB and Joseph winding around each other, and then Schools and JB doing back-up harmony for the Reverend Jerry Joseph in a raucous church revival moment as he screamed, Whatever gets you through the night!" It was a big way to end a massive first set that left many out of breath with eyes glassed over.
When they came back out with Tie Your Shoes" > Blight" > All Time Low" > Blight" it was clear that Panic was not letting up on this evening. Set two never stopped and never slowed down. Every song bled into the next and they turned the Fox into a sweaty soup of gyrating bodies and flailing limbs.
Tie Your Shoes" was played at a frantic pace with notes folding over one another and everyone somehow staying off each other's toes. Blight" was slow and dark, allowing fans the rare chance to hear Schools sing lead. With a heavy delay on his vocals, Schools was improvising about green shoots popping up everywhere," and when JB sang back-up, Schools followed by blurting out spooky" before they did some of the finest vocal harmonizing of the run. The fact that they went out of Blight" and back into it for a brief moment after All Time Low" sent the hardcore fans reeling.
Set two found Dave Schools out front, and when he dropped the bombs to signal The Meters' Just Kissed My Baby" (which hadn't been played since 2006) the dance party went into overdrive. Fully equipped with the JB Night People" rap, Jimmy Herring's fire-starter lead and percussionist Wally Ingram adding color, things opened wide during this section.
One could wax poetic about every song played: the strong C. Brown;" the heavenly, delicate jam out of Wonderin';" the slow, methodical, long Porch Song" that erupted at the end, reminding fans of the late '90s; and the Love Tractor" that closed the set. But it was Arleen" > Red Hot Mama" that turned a great show into the stuff of legend.
The dirty disco funk of Arleen" came on hot and heavy and sent backs breaking and knees popping. Everyone - band and fans alike - were fully lubricated at this point and there was no looking back. It didn't matter if this was your 150th Panic show or your first; everyone felt it and it appeared that all had given themselves over to the groove. Jojo was hammering the Clav, locked-in deep with Schools, and JB was loose, adlibbing about the neighbor girl ("her face look good but her body not ready") and tossing in a brief moment of Junior," adding to the story he's been crafting for decades. It all built to a mean crescendo with that little neighbor girl's daddy coming out with his gun locked and loaded as the band fell in step, turning out the final jam before Schools teased Sugar Hill Gang's Rappers Delight" with a bit of Hotel motel Holiday Inn."
At this point all bets were off, and when they blasted into Parliament/Funkadelic's Red Hot Mama" it was a blur of funky keys, growling guitars, heavy bass, and grinding ass funk. For this writer, Arleen" > Red Hot Mama" (and the entire second set for that matter) was as good as anything he's seen all year.
We're glad we came to work tonight," declared JB before the encore. It was a big show felt just as much by the band as the fans, and when they closed with JB on mandolin for a tender End Of The Show" it was the perfect way to send us off into the night, feeling just a bit lighter than when we walked in.
There's transcendence in these songs. Dancing with eyes closed and screaming along with old friends you rarely see and new ones you've yet to make, there's community here. There's a shared experience that stretches far beyond the concert hall. Widespread Panic is a true blue workingman's rock & roll band. They aren't singing of fantastical places or imaginary moments, this is salt of the earth stuff and as Americans we need it more than ever. Life is hard right now and we're carrying a lot weight. People are losing jobs, houses, and lives, and many aren't sure how they're gonna pull through. A rock concert might not save us from tomorrow, but it sure feels nice to let it all slide off our shoulders and roll down our backs, even if it's just for three hours on a Friday night.
Widespread Panic :: 11.13 :: Fox Theatre :: Oakland, CA
Set I: Junior, Solid Rock, Happy > Goin' Out West, Big Wooly Mammoth, Pigeons, Crazy, Walkin' (For Your Love) > Don't Be Denied, Light Is Like Water*
Set II: Tie Your Shoes > Blight > All Time Low > Blight > Just Kissed My Baby**, C. Brown** > Wondering > Porch Song > Arleen > Red Hot Mama > Love Tractor
E: End Of The Show
* with Jerry Joseph on guitar/vocals
** with Wally Ingram on percussion
You can stream and/or download this show for free now at panicstream.com.
Widespread Panic is on tour now; dates available here.