A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Food Drive
Widespread Panic has always played well in Huntsville. There may be plenty of theories why this is so, but sometimes looking a gift-horse in the mouth is a dangerous thing. Heck, after 3 years of absolutely amazing concerts at the Von Braun Center (1996, 99, and 2000,) there was no reason that this year would be any different. Or was there?
Historically, bands with nomadic fan bases, such as Panics, have inevitably run into problems on the road. It serves to reason that whenever all the neighborhood kids come over to play at the clubhouse, eventually some improprieties will occur. This was the case in April of 2000 when several youths took a trip to the local hospital after over-indulgence during the concert. The fact that a few witless freaks decided to trash the towns beautiful park and camp out there didnt help endear Panic fans to the local gentry either. Both events made headlines in the local media and caused an extremely negative stigma to be associated with the words "Widespread Panic."
From the comments of the local authorities and television stations, it was clear that they didnt want us to come back. The local TV station even placed an online survey on its web site, quizzing the viewers to see if they wanted the band to come back. Not letting journalistic integrity or objective reporting stand in the way of a sensationalistic story, they openly encouraged their viewers to "VOTE NO." Despite all the homemade hoopla, the management of the Von Braun Center was ready to call their bluff. They bravely booked Panic again, to the horror of small-town agenda setters throughout Madison County.
As more and more music fans are becoming aware, Panic Fans For Food is a grassroots charity organization in the purest sense. Without any official leadership structure or ties to the band, it has been a self-motivating vehicle for good will and benevolence in communities across the country. Feel free to click on the web site link at the bottom of this article for a full report on the historical success of the PFFF projects. The funny thing about PFFF drives has always been that they were an unexpected bonus to a community that was hosting a show. With the exception of New Orleans and Atlanta, which have hosted multiple drives, most places are new to the idea and welcome it with open arms.
This year Huntsville would be different.
First off, I have to admit that part of the motivation for a drive in Huntsville was to repay the community for the problems Widespread Panic fans caused last year. It only seemed right. Huntsvillians felt certain that Panic fans were heathen sinners, cruising down the primrose path on a pack of turbo-diesel razor scooters. Though I did not bear any witness to the problems that occurred last year, I certainly understand their sentiment. The annual Panic concert is without a doubt the biggest freakshow that Huntsville, Alabama sees all year, for better or worse.
What we were not prepared for was the political backlash of the local charities who did not want to accept the PFFF donation. The food drive organizers only ask for 2 things of any local charity group: a few barrels to collect cans, and a truck to pick them up after the drive is over, before the show starts. PFFF isnt officially tied to the band, nor are they sponsored officially by any local non-profit group either. After making this clear to the Food Bank of North Alabama, we were still stunned that they "declined to participate" in any way.
So no food bank, no problem. Really, even a town as small as Huntsville must have enough charities so we could pick one that could use our food. But while a little concerned apprehension was expected, an organized political rally was not. Not only did the food bank leaders refuse to accept s donation in advance, they called a meeting of local charity groups and church charities to demand that they refuse to cooperate with PFFF. The whole episode was just completely bizarre.
So, with all the deck stacked against the food drive, with volunteers such as myself struggling with self-doubt, when things were looking the bleakest, we got a break. The Hope Place home for battered women was willing to accept our donation. We were so relieved that the drive would go on that we didnt even quibble about the barrels or collection of the canned goods. Wed deal with that later. Whats more, the Huntsville Times thought we got a raw deal. Being the only local newspaper, they jumped on the story and made the average citizens of Huntsville aware of how their civic leaders were behaving.
The Huntsville Times deserves high praise for taking the time to learn about Panic Fans For Food and the positive impact it has on communities nation-wide. It was have been far too easy for them to turn their noses up at us, but they didnt. With the help of Huntsville Times entertainment editor, Chris Welch, the community rallied around the cause. Perhaps realizing that two wrongs do not make a right, many local charities began to contact us to extend an olive branch and encourage the drive.
I would like to think that we rose to the challenge, but things are never so simple. The day of the show was mayhem. PFFF founder Josh Stack and myself drove down from Atlanta to get ready and pretty much handled the logistics on the fly. We got there considerably later than we had originally planned, but somehow I think thats how this story is supposed to go.
One of the reasons why we were facing so much resistance was because there was a decidedly "family-oriented" concert series in park all weekend. There were fences and barricades up all around the downtown area. The Salvation Army volunteered some barrels for us, but the streets around the venue were all blocked off because of the music festival in the park across the street, so picking them up proved to be a big problem. We could tell the loyal Panic fans had already arrived with some canned goods as Josh and I scrambled to get a folding table, and tape up the posters that the ladies of the Atlanta Crew made for us the night before.
And donations came in. Oh boy, did they. After Josh and I had a minute to get settled, take a deep breath, and have a cold drink, all of a sudden smiling faces bearing canned food descended upon us like Children of the Corn. Those that could brought cans and many more made cash donations. What truly amazed me was how many different folks contributed to the drive. There were a lot of new faces coming up to the table, and I was really proud of that. If the same core of people volunteered and donated every time, without support from the everyday Panic fans, the drives would not mean very much.
Pickup was something we hadnt even gotten around to considering. As the mound of cans started to stack on our table like the $60,000 pyramid, Josh and I were wondering where we were going to put it before the concert. The Salvation Army said we could bring it to their soup kitchen, but we had no way to get it there with the street blocked. Once again, the Von Braun Center proved to be a most loyal ally of the Widespread Panic fans. Event manager Mike Finnegan gave us the OK to store the cans in the building during the show, and even overnight. The magic was still there. I could feel it.
After all was said and done, PFFF collected 500 pounds of food and $750 dollars in cash donations. We brought a pick-up truck back to the venue at 7am Saturday morning and parked it where the bands bus was the previous night to collect the food. We had such a bountiful harvest that we split it 3 ways. The Hope Place womens home got 1/3 of the food and a sizeable check. The Salvation Armys soup kitchens got a nice share of the canned food because they were so helpful near the end of our quest. Even the inter-faith mission got a portion of the food, mostly because we were lost and thought we had pulled up to the Salvation Army. Hey, charity is supposed to be blind, right?
At the end of the day, the home team prevailed. And when I say "home" team I mean every citizen of the city of Huntsville. I mean every person who has every volunteered for any charity in that town. I mean every Panic fan who has ever taken the time to pick up trash in the lot and keep the scene clean. I mean Ted Rockwell who donated a portion of his Everyday Companion 3 sales to support the cause. Everyone who makes the little extra effort to try and do the right thing. We won this day because of you.
But the story isnt over here. I havent even gotten to the soundtrack yet. Wait till I tell you about it. It seemed like it followed the script perfectly. Or maybe we were dancing to the beat the whole time and just didnt realize it. Hearing rumors of a "Hope In a Hopeless World" soundcheck didnt get me excited to hear that specific song per se, but it made me think the band was at least on the same page. After the fallout from their show in Starkville the night before, things probably seemed pretty bleak to them at that point.
By the time we had carried all the cans into the Von Braun Center by hand and stacked them in the back corner of the employees entrance, we were pretty bushed. It took all the energy we could muster to grab a beer and stumble out onto the floor. Truly, by this point we would have been happy for just about anything we got. Its hard to be picky about song choices when you are just so grateful to be there. But all the fans in Huntsville would be rewarded for their efforts.
First set got off to a quick start with "Disco." Always a solid set-opener, the instrumental gave everyone a chance to get comfortable in their dancing space. Likewise, the sound crew got a chance to make sure all 6 musicians were dialed into the mix correctly. Moving swiftly into "Wondering," the band made the transition smoothly and prepared to launch things skyward from there. Song choice and placement are definitely subjective things in Widespread Panics sets, but "Wondering" always seems like a great pick early in a first set. The themes of working, wondering, and driving all hit home on a Friday evening after a long week.
"Greta" seems to remind me more and more of "Airplane" from the fact that the main lyrics and chorus stay the same, but the jam at the end is always over-the-top. Some fans do complain that "Greta" is over-played and trite, but as long as the jam at the end justifies the road taken to get there, it seems like it should remain in the rotation. The transitions throughout the first set were all fairly smooth, as the band exuded confidence both during and between the 9 songs selections. As "Greta" broke down, the dark, staccato jam that followed sounded to me like it might be "Sharon." That would have been an amazing song choice, given the circumstances, so it was equally impressive that they broke out the rare cover "Do What You Like."
"Do What You Like" seemed almost ironic given the reality of the bands situation. Some trouble with fans in Starkville the night before compounded with the problems in Huntsville in 2000, seemed to point toward the need for greater discretion throughout the scene. The bands response: "keep your head right, do what you like." Dont be foolish, but do be true to your beliefs. Just be yourself and everything will be alright. Not so much a political statement as a word of caution, the band threw down a dark and nasty vocal and instrumental arrangement to hammer home their point.
From there the long jam continued, twisting and turning courtesy of some sweet slide guitar work from JB. After a few stringy licks, it became apparent that the band was about to "Stop Breakin Down." There arent many cover songs that have become band favorites so quickly, but its not hard to see why. Thinking back to the Stained Souls show from a few months ago, this is Widespread Blues. "You Got Yours" shared first set highlight honors with the "Do What You Like." Rarer and rarer in the rotation these days, this one sounded unlike any I recall hearing before. It was loud and tight, with plenty of well-timed guitar effects from Mike Houser. Maybe Im reading too much into song choice, but the theme also seemed to be a wry commentary on the controversy surrounding the band and its fans at the time. For a song I dont think about much, I was really excited.
The first set ended up being one of the longer first sets the band had played in a while. I didnt have a stopwatch, but after the "Thought Sausage" closer, it seemed like close to 90 minutes. "Thought Sausage" continues to improve, becoming a real beast of a song. That along with the second set opener, "Give" seem to be the two strongest songs the band is playing right now.
"Give" to open the second set was the real theme song for the day. Charity, generosity, and yes, partying down were all on the menu. It tasted good. It was amazing how loud the band sounded. I mean, "Give" is a rocking song anyway, but it sounded like the crew just turned the dials up until the soundboard started to smoke. I didnt really notice the loudness until "Dyin Man," because the first song of the set, I was bouncing about 6 feet above the crowd. Housers guitar effects have given this song an extra dimension to keep it fresh, even though he did tend to rely on his pedals a whole lot, throughout the entire tour. "Jack" is always a treat, regardless of the situation. "Surprise Valley" and "Papas Home" were both solid and well mixed going into drums. The energy level was consistently high all night. "Tie Your Shoes" coming out of drums was a real crowd pleaser, as were the "Pickin Up The Pieces" and "Henry Parsons Died" to close the show.
The encore of "Dream Song" paired with "Chunk O Coal" didnt really showcase the strengths of the band as a whole, but the rest of the show up to that point more than made up for it. I think most anyone would agree that "Chunk O Coal" is a decent song, just not one that fits in the encore slot. Otherwise, the show was an overwhelming success. Outside after the show, things went down about like they do at your average Widespread Panic concert. Everyone was orderly, and no incidents of any trouble were reported. Music fans young and not so young mingled together outside having a snack and drink to refill their tank. Every hungry soul was filled on this night, that was for sure.