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Published: 2002/07/23
by Chip Schramm

Live in the Classic City – Widespread Panic

Sanctuary Records 06076-84552-2

For a band that insists on doing business on its own terms, Widespread
Panic never strays far from the course. After waiting over 10 years to
release their long overdue first live album, they followed quickly with a
second, and then made meticulous plans for a third. While the first two
were typical of most live rock albums in that they were song compilations
chosen from many shows over the course of entire tours, the third was an
event unto itself. Another Joyous Occasion was a different animal
its predecessor, Light Fuse, Get Away because of the synergy that the
Dirty Dozen Brass Band shared with the Panic boys. Live in the Classic
City takes another route to generate that kind of chemistry by including
diverse roster of special guests. And while the CD release party in Athens
for Light Fuse was celebrated in front of a crowd of 100,000 plus,
the three
performances for Live in the Classic City were played before a
crowd of a few thousand in the Classic Center's tiny theater.

Whenever musicians designate a concert or specific run of shows to become a
live album in advance, it is a bit of a gamble. It was more than just
common knowledge that the Classic Center shows were being recorded for an
official release. For the first time in many long years, taping was
completely forbidden. Security was tight, and tickets were nearly
impossible to find. The band had contacted some of their most esteemed
peers in the music industry to make sure that April 1, 2, and 3 were booked
on their calendar far in advance. But with only six sets of music, they
already committed to what they could choose from to make the final cut on
the album. Fortunately, the band had some truly sparkling moments at the
Classic Center, especially on the first night.

Usually, writing a live show review for a band like Widespread Panic is not
too difficult because you can always seek out audience tapes after the
show. Because of the unique situation at the Classic Center, hearing
in the Classic City for the first time was like reliving a forgotten
spring daydream from a former life. In the two years that have passed since
Panic played these shows, the songs that were brand new at the time have
since matured into powerful staples of the band's repertoire. Even so,
hearing the original instrumental "Action Man" sent a chill down my
spine as I relived the opening moments of the weekend.

The first night was the best show of the three, pound for pound. Much of
that probably stemmed from the energy and anticipation of the band itself,
after many months of planning the weekend. The entire first night is
included on the release, and the complete first set is on the first disc.
The first disc does begin with "Action Man" which segues into a
"Chilly Water > Pleas > Chilly Water" sandwich that is fast
and furious every step of the way. The electricity in the room on the
first night was indescribable. John Keane provided the first guest
appearance of the weekend with some pedal steel on "C Brown, but the
unexpected "Lilly" that immediately followed sent the crowd into a

"Lilly" was one of the most promising new songs at that time, but had
been kept curiously absent for the entire fall tour and New Year's shows of
1999. The Classic Center shows provided the ideal setting for its
coming out party. Even though many of the more complex jams came later in
the weekend, the first set of the first night contained such unbridled
power and emotion, it would have been a mistake to cut any of it out. The
weekend was spiced heavily with selections from Till The Medicine
as many of those songs had reached maturity and were ripe for the offering.
"Surprise Valley" is a fine example of that. Even the "Flatfoot
Flewzy" is as bawdy and wild as any the band has covered. Dave Schools
is in rare form here, as he was throughout the entire weekend.

The second disc of the three-CD set is the shortest song-wise with only
tracks, but musically it is also the heaviest, with the likes of Chuck
Leavell, Randall Bramblett, Col. Bruce Hampton, and Derek Trucks creating a
"Widespread Friends" atmosphere. "All Time Low" begins the disc and
contains some well-crafted vocal harmonies between John Bell and Jojo
Hermann. They nailed their vocal phrasing live in concert, but more
importantly, John Keane mixed it perfectly afterward to preserve the moment
for the album. Keane's post-production work in his studio is one of the
key elements that make this album special. The final cut is as crispy,
fresh, and tasty as your grandma's fried chicken.

Even though I am not a huge fan of the song "Mercy", Chuck Leavell's
keyboard compliments Bell's passionate vocals so perfectly that it's one of
the most moving versions I've ever heard. The "Ride Me High" with
Bramblett on saxophone, was something Panic fans had been screaming for
since the version they played with Cecil Daniels at the Warfield back in
1997. Bramblett's wild horn riffs combined with Hermann's funky clavinet
lines make this the definitive Panic version of this JJ Cale tune. Sunny
Ortiz is joined by Dr. Arvin Scott, Count M'butu, Garrie Vereen, and Peter
Jackson to provide an all-star percussion corps as well. The drum solo
gets bigger as Todd Nance moves to the marimba to give Yonrico Scott room
to play on his kit.

The end of the second disc is arguably the highlight of the album. The
band couldn't have a star-studded lineup of special guests without
including their daddy, Col. Bruce Hampton. Hampton teams up with Derek
Trucks for a mind-blowing version of "Time Is Free" then exits the
stage leaving Trucks by himself to play some wicked slide guitar on
"Climb To Safety". The song builds to a furious climax as Trucks
slowly works himself into the groove, before unleashing furious licks
throughout the peak of the jam. Trucks plays both with and alongside Mike
Houser, weaving his web without stepping on any of Houser's musical toes.
"Blue Indian", the encore of the first night, is a fitting end
to the second disc. Bramblett, Leavell, and Keane add a texture and depth
to the song, like a team of artists collaborating on a classical work of

The third disc of the album includes well-chosen highlights from the 2nd
and 3rd nights, keying on the songs that had special guests sitting in.
"Bear's Gone Fishin'" and "Waker" included Anne Richmond Boston
on backing vocals, with John Keane providing banjo on the latter tune as
well. Boston's vocal work on Till The Medicine Takes was a very nice
touch, but her singing seems overshadowed by the other musicians on these
live versions. "Stop and Go" is and was all about Dave Schools on the
bass. From the familiar opening lines down to the last few bombs of the
ending cadence, Schools is in total control. The long, smooth jam in the
middle contains some subtle references to the Grateful Dead's live jams, as
Schools can't help but radiate energy from the music that he himself loves
so much.

"Hatfield" and "Red Hot Mama" both showcase the vocal creativity
of John Bell. His spontaneous rapping in "Hatfield", with a verse
about Vic Chesnutt's records is pure stream-of-consciousness, and the
deep growl with which he delivers the lyrics to "Red Hot Mama" is almost too
raw to translate fully onto disc. "Let's Get the Show On the Road" is
a great song and even though it seems strange as the last song on the
album, the band delivers an emotional performance.

Overall, Live in the Classic City is by far the best of the three
records that Widespread Panic has released. The songs were well chosen,
the performances were both tight and creative, and the special guests all
played their roles perfectly. The album might be too good, since
the band doesn't put on this kind of full-scale production every single
night they perform. But that was surely the idea here: gathering all of
their old friends in Athens to play an intimate venue for their longtime
fans. In many ways, they created a musical footprint that will never be
duplicated. This album has so much to offer, it should appeal to music
fans with a wide range of tastes.

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