Night of Joy – Widespread Panic
Widespread Panic picked an odd time to take their first full-fledged hiatus. Sure, after almost 20 years on the road, the Georgia-based sextet certainly earned an extended break: a chance to collectively recharge their batteries and take stock of their solidifying legacy. In fact, these days, an extended hiatus seems like a natural part of any jamband's life cycle — a mature way to avoid a midlife musical crisis. But, unlike Phish and the Grateful Dead, both of whom took time off the road at similar stages in their career, Widespread Panic's current lineup is, in many ways, still in its infancy. Eighteen months and one studio album after the untimely passing of Panic guru and guitarist Michael Houser, Widespread Panic are just now figuring out how to channel their guitar rock through new member George McConnell. Given these circumstances, it's not entirely correct to liken Night of Joy to the initial albums in the Live Phish series, quickly released concert souvenirs intended to tide fans over for the 12 or so months their band is off the road. Yet, it’s also incorrect to consider Night of Joy a rebirth, a return to form signified by a particular tour or certain string of shows. Instead, Night of Joy is best characterized as a time capsule of sorts, a last minute effort to document a particular era of Widespread Panic’s post-Houser sound, one that may well change shape again following Panic’s extended road break.
That having been said, Night of Joy is a solid disc overall. Structurally, it falls somewhere between Panic’s two essential live offerings – the sprawling two-disc live compilation Light Fuse, Get Away and the more compact Dirty Dozen Brass Band tour document Another Joyous Occasion – as the band is once again bolstered by the addition of the Dirty Dozen, a group that always adds a bit of soul to Widespread Panic’s jams. As Night of Joy proves, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band gives Panic's manic jams a bit of a Radiators-style boogie-woogie. The DDBB also push Panic to the edge in terms of their funky mid-section. While McConnell rips precise rock solos, and the group's two-part percussion adds some eclectic world-beat touches, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band carefully wrap their fingers around Dave Schools' bass and turn Widespread Panic into a funk band that Dr. John would be proud to play with.
Opening with "Thought Sausage," a Panic song debuted in 2000, Night of Joy builds upon Widespread’s trademark rock and roll bedrock. Segueing into Ball’s "Thin Air," the Dirty Dozen Brass Band begin to layer elements of their funky sound upon the group's deep fried Southern rock. Without Houser to lead, Schools' bass has become the driving force in the group's jams. Considerably younger and a bit more indebted to arena rock than Houser's well-paced-but-still-frantic-musicianship, McConnell also pushes Panic a bit more into the realm of solos rather their collective group improvisation. Clocking in at 17 minutes, "Rebirtha," in particular, seems to push the psychedelic envelope. A band known for their songs, as well as their jams, it's a pleasure to see Panic play around with time and space, while also allowing McConnell to play around with some subtle sounds.
The meat of Night of Joy flows like a Widespread Panic jam: it can be heard as one constant stream of music or inspected more closely for solos or rhythmic curls. "Thin Air" and a cover of Bill Withers’ "Use Me," in particular, showcase Panic’s interplay with their New Orleans peers, making full use of the Dirty Dozen’s tight rhythm section. While the piano-led "Bayou Lena" at times feels a bit stunted, it does provide the album with its title: "With this little southern show in a gator skin suit/Jailbird vagrants stompin’ to the floor/ Mixin’ drinks with muddy water and kitchen cigarettes/ At the night of joy, what a night of." Spread Heads will also enjoy "Old Neighborhood," a song also released on the concert DVD Live from the Backyard . Functioning as a sequel of sorts to Another Joyous Occasion, Night of Joy overlaps with its predecessor with the inclusion "Arleen," a small touch that connects these two discs material-wise.
Night of Joy is also an odd live album because, unlike many jamband goody bags, Widespread Panic knew their performances were going to be taped for release. A healthy mix of songs new and old, Night of Joy captures the overall feel of a Widespread Panic concert more completely than even Houser’s epigraph, Live in the Classic City, which is weighed down with special guests and three discs of material. A cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" is also a rare treat that deserves disc documentation.
In a year's time Night of Joy may well sound a bit outdated but it won’t sound uninspired (a fact that bodes well for future performances by the group).