Widespread Panic and the Magical Mullet Toss Weekend
If you live within 500 miles of Orange Beach, Alabama, and happen to enjoy getting drunk at the beach while listening to live music, then you have heard of the Flora-Bama. Jimmy Buffett has immortalized it in song, and it is a pilgrimage for all who love boozing, boating, beaching, and dancing. The Flora-Bama is, unquestionably, the epicenter of the Redneck Riviera. It is a bar where doctors, tow-truck drivers, lawyers, gill-net fishermen, politicians, bikers, hippies, rednecks and frat daddies all coexist peacefully amid millions of grains of sand, notes of music, and dollars of booze. Its wipeout in the devastation of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 inspired the slogan “To hell with Iraq Rebuild the Flora-Bama!” The bar rebuilt, and the crowds returned.
This epicenter of the Redneck Riviera straddles the Florida and Alabama state lines, and it is not uncommon for patrons to park in one state and walk into the other. The peak of the Flora-Bama each year is the Interstate Mullet Toss. This year’s 23rd Annual Interstate Mullet Toss, in which participants throw a dead fish called a mullet from Alabama into Florida, was attended by over 15,000 people (a new record was set at 168’4’’) Dozens of bands came through Orange Beach and Pensacola, Florida to play for crowds. One man had taken a motor for a large drill and used it to power a homemade multigallon blender designed to churn out large amounts of daiquiris, which he gave for free to beachgoers, because, hey, it’s Mullet Toss weekend, and that’s just what you do.
The biggest band to come to the Redneck Riviera was Widespread Panic, who closed their tour at The Wharf, a new 10,000 seat amphitheatre in Orange Beach. Spreadheads abounded at the Flora-Bama, where they “pregamed” like champions before the show, and then came back afterwards. In between shows, many of the tribe walked the beach and collected seashells, and ate blackened mahi and crab claws at Lulu’s Restaurant, owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister Lucy.
The Wharf is the new Oak Mountain. I know of no other way to describe it. Its shape is exactly the same, its staff is just as friendly, and the police and city staff were also just as friendly as pre-2002 Oak Mountain Staff.
Most importantly, the April 27th show was up to the same caliber. It is one of my favorite Panic shows, and the caliber of setlist, singing, and playing was unbelievable.
Things kicked off with “Holden Oversoul” into “1 X 1” and it was immediately apparent that Bell had enjoyed his day off and was hitting the high notes perfectly. “Tickle the Truth” was passionate and “Who Do You Belong To?” was monstrous. It started out soft and staccato and continued speeding up, sung searingly and sincerely before settling into a rockabilly jam that is worth buying from livewidespreadpanic.com.
Widespread Panic with Jimmy Herring must be heard to be believed. Having him in the band adds new dimensions to the songs that have never been explored. At the same time, he can, by and large, bring us back to the original, signature sound that first introduced us to the band. I am looking forward to what comes out of Terry Manning’s Bahamas studio, but I digress.
Panic took “Who Do You Belong To?” softer into an unexpected “Jack” that I feel incapable of commenting on because all of us there were to busy high-fiving, screaming the words, and dancing to really think about it. “Hatfield” became another sing-along with more of Bell’s crazy improvised lyrics and high-pitched faux Cajun patois. They closed the set with one of my least favorite Panic songs, “Travelin’ Light,” and it was incredible. This song is a tired old warhorse that found new life in Jimmy Herring’s new way of playing it. Herring not only revitalized the song, but revitalized the other band members singing it, causing them to explore it in new ways as well. This is another reason why Herring is such a vital member of the group only eight months into his hopefully-permanent tenure with them.
The second set started with the band members walking onstage while DJ Logic was playing “Thank You Fa Lettin Me Be Mice Elf Again.” Schools started playing along with the music, joined by J.B. and JoJo, and the band would return to tease it throughout the night. The set proper began with “Let it Rock,” a Chuck Berry tune turned into nasty swamp funk and was sung exuberantly. “Let it Rock,” with its shout-out to nearby Mobile and its middle rap about how J.B. “can’t smell shit” made for a great combination of salty ocean air and salty music.
“Time Zones” couldn’t even kill the momentum they had built, and they went into a beautiful mid-tempo “Diner” sung high and clear like on “Light Fuse, Get Away” before moving into a “Ride Me High” played too quickly. “Driving Song” was a breather that segued into a proper “Dyin’ Man” with turntables thanks to DJ Logic. Drums was a bathroom break as usual but somewhat more uptempo and swinging thanks to the addition of three or four members of the road crew and Outformation. The band came out and did a strange and suspenseful “Super Mario Bros. Level 1-2” jam that went into a six-drummer, one DJ “Arleen” that was unquestionably the highlight of the night. Bell shouted random things, and they jammed it out slowly and explored new avenues as they brought it down and back into “Driving Song.” They closed the set with “Give,” another tired old warhorse that, surprisingly, blew me away because Herring took it to the next level, as he did with so many songs that night.
I turned to the person next to me and said, “I think that was Oak Mountain-worthy, but what do you think?” He said, “we’ll see after the encore.”
Cat Stevens’ “Trouble,” for anyone who has seen Harold and Maude is a touching time of reflection and a beautiful song. Panic plays it about once every fifty shows and I had only seen it once. Everyone was silent and reflected on the ocean and mortality and the weekend and soaked up the moment. It was poignant and spot-on. As though Cat Stevens were not enough, “Wish You Were Here” came. At the end, we were drained emotionally and exhausted, but they closed with a “Blackout Blues” that gained steam throughout, ending with the repeated, progressively louder call to “pick my head up off the ground.”
At that point, everyone was already in the clouds.