BY ELGIN SMITH
After hearing so much about Widespread Panic over the past few years, I decided it was finally time to take the plunge and check the band out in concert. While I knew of Widespread's heroic status in the upper echelons of jam, I had only heard a few songs here and there, and figured that these cats probably saved their best stuff for their live shows.
Unfortunately, the music that I heard during most of last night's show just wasn't that interesting.
The show started with a couple of medium tempo numbers that sounded OK, but after three of them, I was really wondering if the show was going to go anywhere. Guitarist Jimmy Herring was certainly in high gear from the get-go, blasting through a ton of notes on each solo.
However, I soon realized that Panic's livelihood really depends on an aggressive guitarist like Herring, the group's compositions relying on his playing almost to a fault. I'm certainly not saying he isn't a skilled, competent guitar player. However, his hasty, non-melodic riffs just seemed to lack continuity and gave the band a one-dimensional sound. Combine that with John Bell's unclear, waffling vocals, and most of the songs became very predictable.
Percussionist Chico Ortiz could barely be heard, except for one song that featured him on congos, followed by him playing a didgeridoo into a microphone (actually, that was pretty cool).
The first set ended with my impression that they sounded remotely like a diluted, half-speed version of an Allman Brothers song. Not the Allman Brothers Band as a whole (which I'm a huge fan of, and which has produced music which is both interesting and lengthy), just one of their songs. Half speed, over and over.
The second set seemed to have a little more variety than the first. However, Herring's stratospheric guitar solos were still the norm, drowning just about everything else out.
There was a glimpse of something fresh on the third song, "You Should Be Glad," with its catchy, "Superstition"-like Stevie Wonder keyboard lines. I liked the fact that the band decided to shift gears into a groovier feel, until a piano-and-conga interlude became an eight-minute vamp that brought the dreadlocks to a standstill. I'll give them props for trying a kind of new-age feel, though.
Then came a real head-scratcher: "New Orleans Fishwater," which added DJ Logic on the turntables. While I respect and admire the willingness to try new musical avenues, the scratch-and-conga-plus-breakbeats intro didn't mesh at all, despite sounding cool in theory. Though this wasn't the sound Widespread had exhibited during the first set, it was so disconnected that the audience seemed lost. The band eventually came back in, resulting in something that sounded like a shoddy cover of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit."
Panic did manage to give an interesting performance of Talking Heads staple "Life During Wartime," which also included DJ Logic. There was another vamp in the middle, however, but this time it took on a spacey, electronic feel between keyboards and scratching. Again, it didn't really make for a very cohesive sound, but the effort was respectable.
After two encores and nearly four hours of music, Widespread Panic finished the first night of its two-night engagement at the Midland. Although the show wasn't sold out, the substantial crowd seemed happy with the performance. I was not of the same opinion, clearly, but I'm still going again tonight.
Blow my mind, Panic.
Party at Your Mama's House
Ribs and Whiskey
Let's Get Down to Business
You Should Be Glad
New Orleans Fishwater
Life During Wartime
New Orleans Fishwater
Fixin' to Die