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Columns > Rob Johnson - Hittin The Note

Published: 2007/06/26
by Rob Johnson

Wakarusa 2007: Hot Jams, Cool Vibes, And The Coronation Of Widespread Panic

Here is column 3 from from Hittin’ The Note staffer (and longtime writer) Rob Johnson. Special thanks, once again, to HTN editor John Lynskey

“I think we made huge strides with the traffic, lines, parking, security and the idea that we were trying to create a more harmonious environment,” says Wakarusa organizer and founder Brett Mosiman. “We definitely felt the love again this year. It’s like we resurrected our brand. A lot of people were on the fence whether we were the good guys or the bad guys. I think the message was received on both sides.” – From the June 15th, 2007 issue of the Lawrence Journal-World and News

After last year’s controversial security debacle, one of the big questions hanging over the 2007 Wakarusa festival was simply this: Could they pull it off? Would people still come out to a festival that had incurred such a serious PR backlash? If people did show up, would they encounter a Big Brother-ish police state?

As promoter Brett Mosiman’s comments above indicate, the answers were yes, yes and no. Despite a boycott campaign on various jam-oriented websites, Wakarusa drew about 12,000 people a day. That is down 20% from last year, which is a significant drop, but not fatal. And while there was a definite, visible police presence at the festival, there were only 14 arrests, and the overall atmosphere was pleasant and relaxed. This allowed everyone to focus on the music, and that’s what it’s all about, right?

For the second year in a row, Hittin’ the Note magazine set our booth up in the Revival Tent area, and for the second year in a row, we were convinced that we had the best spot in all of Wakarusa. Out of the sun and rain, we had our own little musical universe kicking in there from 11 AM until 4 AM every day. We were close enough to the main stage to make quick side trips easy, but there was so much great music in the tent it took a lot to get us away from our comfort zone.


Papa Mali was the first act to make the Revival Tent live up to its name. Starting off with the title track of his new CD Do Your Thing, he quickly got the crowd riled up with the audience participation nature of the song.

“You motherfuckers are alright,” Mali said to the crowd after the song, and you got the impression that this was a very high compliment.

In fact, throughout his set Papa Mali acknowledged the warm support of the audience, noting that “the crowds have been getting bigger” on his recent tours. That is welcome news. For too long, Papa Mali has been an underappreciated cult legend, and his electrifying brand of swamp voodoo deserves a wider audience. Melding blues, funk and the unique sound of the Mardi Gras Indians with his own special sauce, he has hit on a soulful blend all his own. A rowdy version of the New Orleans classic “Early In the Morning,” also known as “Little Sadie,” was one highlight of this entertaining set.

It was a very long hike indeed to the campground area from the Revival Tent, but Asheville’s Toubab Krewe was worth it, and they wowed the Campground Stage on Thursday evening with a tight set of their West African jam-fusion. They didn’t invent the bouncy, syncopated groove that animates many of their songs it’s everywhere from King Sunny Ade to Paul Simon’s Graceland. Even so, their skill and creativity raise the band above a mere copycat act.

It’s easy to admire a style of music from afar, so to speak, lifting a few choice riffs or musical ideas but not really getting to the heart of the music. Toubab Krewe has obviously gotten in very deep, mastering even the trickiest polyrhythms and most subtle nuances of West African music, while still adding their own personality. Justin Perkins was especially impressive on the kora, a 21-string instrument from Mali with a hypnotic sound similar to the sitar.

At one point, the band locked into a groove that was so fiercely polyrhythmic that it seemed that it might fall apart at any moment. The “one” became nothing more than an abstract concept in the minds of the musicians as they took the rhythm right to the very edge of cohesion. The road manager for another band, a jaded industry insider like myself, was visibly impressed and surprised by their performance, wondering aloud “Why haven’t I heard of these guys?” Discovering new music is definitely part of the whole festival experience, and Toubab Krewe was one of those special finds for me at this year’s Wakarusa.

Later that night, the North Mississippi Allstars took over the Revival Tent for possibly the best set I’ve ever seen them play. This was like a James Brown revue, with the band shifting quickly from one song to another with the confident swagger of roadhouse veterans. As the announcer said before they took the stage, “When these guys play, it ain’t nothing but a party,” and they lived up to that billing on Thursday night.

Luther Dickinson was probably the MVP of the whole festival. Between his scorching playing with the Allstars and his quality sit-ins with everybody from JJ Grey and MOFRO to Shannon McNally, it would be hard to argue the point. He has matured into a king-sized guitar hero, a Southern-fried Jimi Hendrix with the ability to make people scream and cry with a flick of the pick. At his best, his playing hits you on a level deeper than logic, as if waves of emotion and not sound were emanating from his guitar.

For the Thursday set in the Revival tent, the trio was joined by keyboardist JC Chew, who added a lot of soulful flavor. He even sang vocals on old soul standards like “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “Turn On Your Lovelight.” The set was strong on NMAS originals like “Shake Yo Ass” and the spirited “Hillbilly Holler,” which whipped the crowd into a frenzy. However, the highlight of the whole show had to be the medley of “Hey Bo Diddley/Who Do You Love.” With Bo Diddley’s recent stroke fresh in everyone’s mind, it was a fitting tribute, and more importantly, it rocked.

Still road-weary from the drive, I missed most of P Groove on Thursday night. However, they are a great band, and you should check out the story I wrote about them for the March issue of Jambands if you want to find out more about why they are one of the fastest-rising groups on the scene today.


Minneapolis-based hard rockers the Fuz awakened the sleepers on Friday morning with a thunderous version of Neil Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand” that rang off the nearby hills like an alarm clock bell. Time to wake up and boogie, people! I love the smell of burning tube amps in the morning.

Shannon McNally put a twang in the air with her country-flavored music, earning favorable comparisons to with alt-country queen Lucinda Williams. Her clear voice and tight band did justice to the country classics she interspersed with her original material. Bobby Bare Jr., son of the country legend, followed McNally with a rocking set was more Hank Jr. than Hank Sr.

RAQ is a band from Burlington, Vermont, the home of Phish, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it to listen to them. They mine a much heavier musical vein, with shades of the heavy metal leanings of bands like moe. and Umphrey’s McGee. A speedy cover of “Whipping Post” re-imagined the Allman Brothers classic as an aggressive prog-metal piece, to give one example. At times the shredding turned me off, but this version was tight and skillful, and possibly the most interesting cover version of the jam classic that I’ve ever heard. They fared better with a smoking take on ZZ Top’s “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” that showed all their passion, energy and chops. I’ve been hearing a lot lately about why RAQ is a band to watch, and they definitely have talent. I might need to check out their recent CD Ton These

Galactic had the “headline” slot in the tent on Friday night, and they brought the funk early and often. This was high-energy, hard-hitting dance music, the kind that doesn’t give you a choice about shaking your groove thing. Bassist Robert Mercurio sounded exceptionally strong, dropping fat bass bombs that rattled your chest cavity and rearranged your internal organs in a good way, of course. As usual, Stanton Moore stood out on drums with his solid backbeat and unflagging energy.

Any good funk band has a great rhythm section, and Stanton usually gets a lot of well-deserved props, but lately I’ve been finding myself paying more attention to Ben Ellman at Galactic shows. Whether he’s blowing a mean blues harp or going deep into jazzland on the sax, he commands respect. His klezmer-style riffing on “The Moil” was one highlight of this Friday Night Funk Spectacular.

Unfortunately, Galactic was up against Ozomatli, and I had to tear myself away from the Revival Tent for a minute to check them out. I was glad I did. This Latin funk powerhouse is a local legend in their home state of California, but they are still criminally underrated in the rest of the country. With a fat horn section, a little hip-hop energy and lots of Latin flair, they turned the Sun Down Stage into one big dance party. Between their excellent musicianship, socially aware lyrics, and longevity, Ozomatli is doing their best to earn comparisons to Los Lobos. They were worth missing some of Galactic for, and as a former New Orleans resident, that means a lot.


Citizen Mundi kicked Saturday off with some world music flair, as their name would indicate. The sparks really started to fly when the pride of Illinois, jamgrassers Cornmeal, hit the stage at the Revival Tent. This tight ensemble brought plenty of energy and tempo to the table, ripping through bluegrassy originals with fire and passion. This was some really hot jamming, the kind of music that quickens your pulse involuntarily. Their finest moment was an intense jam that mixed some Eastern sounds into their Americana brew, foreshadowing their fiddle player Ali’s upcoming guest spot at New Monsoon’s late night show. (more on that later)

The Slip is another band that has a strong buzz going, especially concerning their recent CD, Eisenhower. However, I found their set on Friday to be a strange mixture of fierce jams and angst-ridden alt-rock ballads that didn’t really gel for me. I enjoyed many of the jams, but the vocals invariably left me cold. Even so, occasionally they would unleash something like a wicked cover of Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” that justified the hype and showed how talented they can be. I just wish they would leave the indie rock behind, it’s not doing them any favors.

Railroad Earth’s second tune, a bouncy instrumental, got the crowd warmed up and moving. “Bird In a House” showcased the band’s crystalline harmonies, a strong point in a genre where vocals are often a weakness, as well as Todd Sheaffer’s thoughtful lyrics about freedom and self-expression. “I just want to sing my own song, that’s all,” Sheaffer sang wistfully at one point. It seems like he’s doing a pretty good job to me.

“Like a Buddha” put a smile on my face that was worthy of the song’s namesake. Again, Sheaffer hit a home run with this song, and he deserves credit as one of the best songwriters working today. “Seven Storey Mountain” is an elegant skyscraper of a song, built from a strong foundation and reaching for the sky. After a magical jam, stillness and quiet faded into silence and brought the crowd back down from the clouds.

Scott Law from Honkytonk Homeslice sat in on Railroad Earth’s last tune, which sounded like a desert caravan snaking its way across the dunes. The band took the crowd on a journey across an exotic musical landscape, full of color and motion, while Law’s luminescent licks added sunshine to the heartfelt groove. Railroad Earth’s music makes you feel good, and that’s what it is all about, remember?

If the members of Tea Leaf Green were groggy after playing until 5 AM the night before, they didn’t show it. Their opening jam was spacy and psychedelic, yet tight and powerful at the same time. “Ride Together” allowed Trevor Garrod to display his musicality on the keys before a deft exchange to guitarist Josh Clark, whose big fat tone filled the cavernous tent with sound. “In the Garden” provided another epic jam, and it was starting to feel like Saturday night.

The thrill of discovery fills TLG’s music, a sense that they don’t know exactly where they are going, but they are up for the journey. There is also a grand poetic sweep to many of their songs, a grandeur that would sound great in a stadium or arena. Whether they will get there or not, time will tell, but their sound is accessible and suited to playing to the masses.

After Garrod commented on how much they enjoy “the social nature of these festivals” they brought out Andy Goessling from Railroad Earth for a deep jam on “Don’t Let the Devil Get His Pay.” Scott Law from Honkytonk Homeslice also made an appearance, and Tim Carbone from RRE came out for the last song and helped the band bring the set to an explosive, powerful climax.

Now for the main event: Widespread Panic. They cast a long shadow over the weekend, and even people who weren’t fans couldn’t help but notice that they were the biggest draw at this year’s Wakarusa. Unlike last year’s Wakarusa, which saw fairly “co-equal” headliners in the Flaming Lips and Gov’t Mule, this time around Widespread was the big name on the marquee.

I can’t offer a good explanation for why it took me so long to see Widespread with Jimmy Herring. Jimmy has been one of my favorite musicians since the Golden Age of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and I’ve been intrigued to hear him with Panic ever since I heard that he was taking George McConnell’s slot. However, scheduling conflicts and life in general had prevented me from catching WSP Version 3.0 until Wakarusa.

In a nutshell, they rocked. From the “Ain’t Life Grand” opener through the final encore of “Imitation Leather Shoes” some 26 songs later, they brought the thunder like a band on a mission. With the Dead no longer a functioning entity and the String Cheese Incident getting ready to break up at the end of the summer, the jamband crown is there for the taking, and judging from their set at Wakarusa, Widespread plans to take it.

Quantity and quality are definitely not the same thing, but let’s crunch a few numbers, shall we? There is the aforementioned 26, which is a lot of songs even for a pop band averaging 4 minutes a tune, not to mention a band that takes nearly every song deep into jam territory. There is the 3.5 hour set you read that right, no setbreak, just one set that lasted over three hours. This was a mammoth show, one designed to impress and overwhelm, and for the most part it delivered the goods.

“Holden Oversoul” is one of those old-school WSP tunes that had been on the shelf for years before Jimmy came on board, and it was an early highlight. Its bouncy groove, odd guitar progressions and cryptic lyrics are classic Panic, and the jam at the end caught some real fire.

“Tickle the Truth Into Submission” is a newer song that featured John Bell at his fierce, testifying best. This was the moment when I realized that I wasn’t just watching a band with a new guitar player I was watching a band with a new lease on life. Jimmy’s arrival has injected new energy into every member of the band. Even during the lesser parts of this show, Widespread was playing with a passion I hadn’t personally seen from them in years, and JB in particular was sounding better than I’ve ever heard him.

Next came a monstrous segue sequence that was the real meat of the set. “Pigeons” is one of those treasured classics that will always bring a Panic show up a notch in intensity, and they maintained that intensity through a strong “The Take Out” and right into the epic anthem “Pilgrims.” One of the few songs ever written specifically about the traveling carnival/religious pilgrimage aspect of a band on tour, it seemed to resonate particularly strongly on this night. “So we listen/and if it feels good, we shake” JB sang, laying out a simple manifesto for jammers and twirlers everywhere.

As the medley continued through “Porch Song” and finally came to an end with “Ribs and Whiskey,” the band had hit some pretty high notes already, and this would have been the obvious place for a setbreak. As the band plowed through “Tall Boy” and “Flicker” you started to wonder if it would happen, and when they went from a dark “Blight” jam into second set staple “Drums” an electric charge went through the audience as they realized the band was going to play straight through.

This was a good time for an appraisal of the show so far. Many people thought Jimmy was “off” at this show, and I could see where he was still trying to find the perfect balance between his style and the trademark Panic sound. However, even when Jimmy is off he’s better than 99% of the guitarists on Planet Earth, and since the last Panic show I saw was with George, all I could hear was the fantastic upside he brings to the band. Energy, ideas, technique, musical sophistication, great ears these are a few of the things that Jimmy Herring brings to the table, and he had some solos at this show that were absolutely hittin’ the note.

I already mentioned that JB was knocking me out, but how about some love for Dave Schools? Even the most jaded WSP veterans proclaimed that he was in a special zone for this show, holding down the bottom end with authority while simultaneously coloring the music with harmonic and melodic accompaniment. Schools is simply one of the best bass players anywhere, and he showed it at this show.

Of course, with any great band, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and no band proves that more than Panic. The members all worked together to create a massive wall of sound, and each member got their chance to shine during the show.

“Second Skin” emerged out of the drum break, and I was happy to see that they haven’t totally abandoned their last CD with George, Earth to America. It may not be their best album, but there are good songs on it that deserve to outlast George, and this is one of them. “Wondering” was a welcome blast for the past, and folks like me who love the first three Panic albums above all else were getting a good dose of old-school Panic.

At this point, we were nearly three hours into the show, but the band showed no signs of fatigue as they launched into “Goodpeople,” another quality song that seems to have survived from Earth to America. Like “Pilgrims,” this tune openly references the jam scene and has the feel of an anthem. “Drink and be whole again,” JB preached to his flock, and regardless of exactly what you’re drinking, that is why most people come to a Widespread Panic show, to be healed and made whole.

“Climb to Safety” has always been one of Panic’s most reliable jam vehicles, and this version was no joke, with Schools and Herring ripping through a tight, hot jam. “Papa’s Home” concluded the set proper some three hours after it started, but the band was still far from done. You’d be lucky to get a one-song encore out of most bands following such a marathon set, but Panic did five!

As for that encore, it was pure fire. “Makes Sense to Me,” another old favorite, was tight and powerful and just flat-out rocking. “City of Dreams” was a nice change of pace and featured some of Jimmy’s best guitar work of the night. However, the real highlight for me was the passionate version of “None of Us Are Free” that followed. “If one of us is in chains/then none of us are free” JB growled and spat with an urgency and anger that was nearly terrifying. Even a crowd favorite like “Imitation Leather Shoes” was anticlimactic after such a cathartic release.

It was almost like they had something to prove, and frankly, they do. They have been thrust into jamband supremacy, almost by default, by outlasting many of their peers. Even so, nobody likes to win something and not feel like they deserve it, and Panic seems to be going the extra mile to convince the world, and themselves, that they can carry the torch proudly forward.

Well, after such a high energy show, you don’t just go to sleep, so Saturday’s late-night schedule was full to the brim with after-Panic diversions. Everyone Orchestra was already playing at the Campground Stage by the time I hiked over there from the main stage area, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Similar to the late, great Zambiland Orchestra shows, EO is more musical, with less emphasis on wacky shenanigans and more focus on hot jamming. In the middle of their set a violent thunderstorm added an interesting dynamic to the show, and by the end of the show the tent was about to levitate from sheer energy.

Of course, then they stopped playing, and I nearly hit the wall, exhaustion-wise. Thank God I still had a thermos full of coffee to keep me going. This kind of all-nighter was a lot easier when I was younger and/or on drugs.

I wandered over to catch some of Lotus, which proved to be the perfect antidote for sleepiness. While they are similar to bands like Sound Tribe Sector 9, they have a more energetic, in-your-face attack, which was just what I needed. When I arrived at their show just before 3 AM, I was dead on my feet. I walked out of the Revival Tent wide awake and ready for New Monsoon, no small compliment to Lotus.

You have to like a band a whole lot to stay up until 4 AM to see them, and New Monsoon is one of my favorite bands in the world today period. I was sad to see percussionists Brian Carey and Rajiv Parikh leave the band, and I was curious to check out the five-piece version and see if they could still bring that big, full sound I’d come to love. I’m glad to report that they didn’t disappoint, playing a ripping set that began in utter darkness and continued until it was morning. “You guys must like to stay up early,” guitarist Jeff Miller quipped at the beginning of the set.

An early highlight was a scorching rendition of “Mountain Air,” the song that made me fall in love with this group. Miller and banjo player Bo Carper, the core duo of the band, were locking in tight on the song’s beautiful harmony lines, and Miller’s solo was a pure, joyous release. The band seemed to appreciate that if people were going to stay up all night to see them, they needed to give a little extra, and they did.

“The Other Side” was the only tune they played from their upcoming release New Monsoon V (look for the review in the next Hittin’ the Note) and they rocked it. This song has a great vibe and serious jam potential, and I expect it to grow as the band plays it more. By this point it was hard to believe I had been exhausted to the point of collapse an hour ago. I had caught my second wind, and was dancing along to every song with limitless energy. The power of music is really special.

Ali from Cornmeal came out for “Bhangra>En Fuego,” which was clearly the highlight of this set, if not the whole festival. Ali and Jeff Miller joined together in a musical mind-meld that took the band through several different jams and musical textures, finally reaching a peak so mind-bogglingly hot that I stopped dancing and sat on the ground, watching in amazement. As the group slowly faded the jam into nothingness, the crowd remained admirably quiet, and just as the music had disappeared into silence, a deafening thunderclap put an exclamation point on the jam. Good stuff! You couldn’t have timed it any better if you tried, and the crowd erupted in a huge cheer.

“Downstream” is one of New Monsoon’s most powerful jams, and this version joins an elite club with the version of “2001” I saw Phish play at Big Cypress. It’s not every day you see a song start in darkness and end at dawn. This churning, sinister groove with lyrics that reference the psychedelic experience was the perfect choice for a serious, deep, late night jam, and it peaked hard with a furious burst of energy. As the band launched into their set-closer “Daddy Long Legs” Jeff Miller congratulated the crowd. “Good morning!,” he announced cheerfully. “You made it!”

Your humble narrator will have to be forgiven if my late-night exploits on Saturday kept me from catching much music on Sunday. Sometimes you just have to take one for the team, and I don’t regret going the distance Saturday night. My cohorts in crime assure me that Jesus Christ Superstar, an annual Sunday tradition at Wakarusa, was impressive as usual, and the “sacred steel” sound of the Lee Boys was another inspired choice for a Sunday. I caught some of New Monsoon’s Sunday set, featuring more of their new material, but to me the late night show was just a little more special, although that could just be my fatigue talking.

By the time Medeski, Martin and Wood hit the stage, we were packing up and rolling home on the long trip back to Georgia, but there is no doubt in my mind that Hittin’ the Note will be back next year. Wakarusa has quickly become one of the finest festivals in the country, offering a dizzying array of diverse music in a wonderful setting, and much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, it makes me sad to consider that I am definitely not in Kansas anymore.

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