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Published: 2001/10/17
by Mark Goodenough

Widespread Panic, Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA 10/12 & 13

Night one: October 12

The Bay Area welcomed devotees of Widespread Panic with beautiful blue skies and the accepting attitude that has long defined the region. On the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay, The Hearst Greek Theatre on the campus of the University of California opened its nooks and crannies to the band and fans for a residency, October 12th, 13th, and 14th, ,2001. The encampment marked WSP’s second visit to the venerable venue (joining the “Travelin’ Light” tour one-setter on May 29, 1998), allowing its fans and the legacy of the band to mingle with the legends and myths of performances and days gone by. Eucalyptus trees scented the light breezes with the Bay Area’s natural patchouli. Pre show, Cal-Berkeley’s marching band serenaded many folks parked close to the Greek with their brassy and percussion-laden rehearsal for Saturday’s halftime show during the football game with Oregon. Yet to be determined is the Saturday impact of departing football revelers, whose game should end approximately 3 p.m., with arriving WSP fans for that night’s offering; fascinating cross-cultural pollination opportunities exist! Happily, in addition to the school’s anthem, the Cal band several times ran through a melody of familiar Van Morrison songs: Brown Eyed Girl, Moondance, Wild Night, Have I Told You Lately, and Domino. The punch of the marching band sections and amplified comments of their directors brought smiles to many faces, and for a relatively short period of time their joyous pealing all but negated the playing of recorded music from the assembled cars. As the sun set on a warmish day, this was about as collegiate-feeling an autumnal day as Berkeley could offer. Parking lots filled with thousands of WSP fans, strolling, vending, meeting and greeting and sometimes reuniting with unexpected faces, checking each other out, trading expectations and exultations as the Fall Campaign of 2001 prepared to kick off. This was a show where any song could (and should!) be played; as a tour kick-off, the band’s pre-show consideration of the plastic song-ledger would reveal that there would be no undue, real or perceived, song repeats this evening. 125 people saw and heard a few of the songs during a semi-stealth Bay Area warmup show the previous evening. In the evening on Thursday (the 11th) the band played a deft showcase in association with radio station KFOG at the Ex’pression Center in Emeryville. The show will be broadcast as part of the “Archives” seriescheck out for specific info. Good news for all: KFOG streams their broadcasts, so it should be accessible for virtually all speaker-enabled computers!

The band hit the stage at approximately 7:15 p.m., and immediately delivered both a commentary on our times and an impressive musical foray with their version of the Pops Staples song “Hope in a Hopeless World.” It was evident from the opening moments that the sound, the band, and the crowd were all completely dialed in for the evening, and the crowd on the floor roiled and bobbed, their movements echoed by the crowd in the wide-ledged stone stands and those up above on the lawn. After “Hope”, a) more commentary, b) a sprightly, revved up song c) both “a” and “b” was offered, in the form of “Wonderin’”. Bassist David Schools threw in many complex runs and glissandos during “Wondering”, in command of his instrument and locked “in the pocket” of the song. Toward the end of the song, keyboardist Jojo Herman teased “Lovelight”, throwing many in the crowd in paroxysms of pleasure, and perhaps hinting (who can know?) at a choice cover before the band leaves Berkeley. A fine, almost stalking version of “Climb to Safety” followed, with band and crowd again locked in and responsive to each other. Smiles and interplay amongst the band members indicated that they were happy to be back on stage and cruising on all cylinders. The band and crowd paused for breath-catching after “Safety”. Fine versions of “Visiting Day”, exhorting us to find that which makes up happy, and “Thought Sausage” followed, with Herman adding an infectious clavinet sequence to the end of “Sausage”, a move that would be repeated tastefully to similar effect later in the show. Vocalist and guitarist John Bell demonstrated his vocal range during “Sausage”, alternating a throaty growl with bright tenors from verse to verse. Dancers in the crowd found many rhythmic niches to hang their moves on, and the clavinet sound added an urgent appeal to the rushing end of the song. The familiar drum beat of J.J. Cale’s “Travelin’ Light” was taken up by drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, with the rest of the band settling into the cushy groove. Like many of the band’s older songs, the fact that it is a long-time gem in the repertoire does not diminish its effectiveness, but rather adds depth and luster to the given evening’s version. The pace of the show slowed nicely with a lush version of “Gradle”, with angles whispering “Pay no mind” and a strong and ultra-melodic solo by guitarist Michael Houser. After “Gradle” the band briefly stopped to tune and rehydrate, but quickly Herman urged them back to the task at hand with the opening chords of “Ride Me High”, another J.J. Cale song the band has adopted. It was remarkable to hear this song’s groove and punch be summoned instantly, from a standing, counted, start. The vocals of Herman and Houser interspersed strongly with the mid-tempo burner, as the crowd whirled and joyfully joined in the chorus. The set closed with a exultant “Ain’t Life Grand”, with Bell, who had strapped on a mandolin for the song, joining on the chorus with Houser’s vocals and the band closing the first set as it had begun it, with a comment on the times we inhabit via a highly enjoyable song, played flawlessly. The first set, which ended at approximately 8:20 p.m., was a nine song powerhouse, with originals and covers that spanned the group’s career all delivered with energy and optimism and faith in the importance and power of music played from the heart.

After a forty minute break, Set Two kicked off with the driving “Radio Child”, with Herman setting the pace again with melodic clavinet work that urged the band and crowd forward and was well-placed as a set-opener. Next, old favorite “Conrad (the Caterpillar)” shimmied into view, with the meaty guitar riff that signifies the song leading the band through the various tempos of the song. “Conrad” gave way to the crushing bass-riff of “Imitation Leather Shoes”, which thumped in chests and propelled the song about the realization of fakery and it’s draining result wailed by the coda “I don’t want to fake it anymore”. For the lyric scritinizers, in “ILS”, “dreaming bout the Mona Lisa” led to “waking up with Linda Tripp”. Next, Houser was in fine voice during “This Part of Town”, with lyrical nuances and delivery shadings easily discernable. The shimmering opening chords to “Driving Song” heralded the opening of one of WSP’s truly epic songs, with plain-spoken feelings, organic images, and common sensibilities woven into stirring melody and structure. As is its pleasure and practice, the band inserted “Little Lilly” into the structure of “Driving Song”. Teases of “Pleas” may or may not have occurred during “Lilly”, opinions were varied in the very unscientific polling group I consulted. The entire composition worked well and sounded terrific. The hurtling tempos mixed with the more restrained passages in the song, stitching an aural landscape that led to a closing verse about both solitude and connectedness, with a solitary character and his dog watching the lights of a passing driver and wondering about the car’s destination and its operator’s personal route. Athens, Georgia’s venerable band Love Tractor was cited as the band played its tune of the same name, with herky-jerk syncopation redolent of L.T.’s sound. The ensuing jam was punctuated with crowd roars and a possible keyboard phrase or two of “Pay That Funky Music”, before the clavinet again led the way out to a phased “breakdown” from the band, leaving the drummers to weave their counts. Sunny was terse and varyingly repetitive, was joined by his amigo from Texan decades gone by, Cecil “Peanut” Daniels, who memorably sticked a cowbell into a groove gong, and drummer Todd Nance added lightening quick hi-hat and snare. At times, the percussion drew on passages that sounded like the beginning of “Surprise Valley”, but brought it back down and included an enchanting bout of circular breathing and didjeredoo (SP?) callings by Sunny. Also vaguely hinted were passages to “Better Off”, and when the six musicians again formed, the “seventh inning stretch” of the drums had given way to the “heat innings” of the coast out of a slamming and melodic second set. Regarding the crowd: EXCELLENT! The one thing people individually could control, their appreciation and involvement, was outstanding for the entire evening. It was ultra-friendly and fun in all parts of the venue, even including the multi-stair alpine approach to the upper reaches of the grounds where the beer tent was situated. Those who trekked up were able to slake their thirst and take in the spectacular view of the bay and a glittering San Francisco seemingly an arm’s length away. The crowd was enthusiastic and emotive throughout the entire show, voicing stark appreciation of the musician’s offerings. Energy was abundant for this opening show of a longish tour, one that will wind through the various time zones of the country until roaring into Memphis for Thanksgiving 2001. Humming superstitiously, Dave and Jojo opened the door, and “Arleen” walked in next. Thoughts were wandering and eyes were staring and receiving grinning parental disdain from Schools as the song rode on the waves that the drums were resting on, clavinet again deployed for maximum angles and accord. The soaring set closed with Jojo’s heartfelt “You Better Run” leading to “All Time Low”, which featured Houser racing up and down the fretboard with a bold slide. If were so inclined, if you squinted your eyes during “Low” and stared at the stage lip and the front part of the crowd, for a fleeted moment was the thought of a western Oak Mountain being approximated, if not inherited fully quite yet, with this exchange between band and attendees. They strolled off stage, and gathered briefly before returning for the two song encore of “City of Dreams” and “Space Wrangler”. “City” was the perfect emotional counterpart to the evening, and the optimistic lyrics and sound of creators Talking Heads were appropriated and re-alloyed in WSP’s forge. The time continuum creaks on, punctuated and not. Southern expatriates and admirers were in full howl, and our lifetimes added to the images in the song. If the perspective was just right, the spirits and auras of all musicians who had trodden the same Greek Theatre boards could be seen grinning and tapping as they watched the entire occasion from the shadowed top of the monumental Grecian columns. After a pause, a dead-on “Space Wrangler” rode off into the darkness, with the three distinct tempos best blended in the twin eight-measure passages that occur directly before Houser’s guitar solos, where the band can sizzle and chomp at the bit before breaking out in lilting guitar-led sentences. The “Wrangler” epic was a thoughtful capper on the evening, the song the title cut of WSP’s original full-length release on Landslide, going back to early days of the band which was time territory shared in this show by only “Conrad” and “Travelin’ Light”. To thunderous appreciation from the masses, they bowed out bathed in purple light, ready to rest and regroup and run again tonight and tomorrow. The audience had similar thoughts, headed to the large lot up and above the Greek for the post-show conference and local economic comet-tail with vendors, excited people, and players in the entire presentation. Welcoming and respectful culture was evident outside the venue just as it was inside.

P.S. Adding to the arguable Oak Mountain comparison possibilities, the music bursting from the P.A. after the show was Neil Young’s “Keep On Rocking in the Free World”. It was responded to energetically by the suddenly alight crowd, fully seeing people they had been swaying next to for an hour and connecting in a shared special occasion. Viva WSP!

Night Two: October 13

The swing show of WSP’s three night engagement at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre took place on the same sort of gorgeous Bay Area evening that had graced the night before. While Friday’s tour opener contained intense musicianship and a degree of song-list social commentary, especially opener “Hope in a Hopeless World”, Saturday’s offering would step away from editorials and possibly take its own rightful place in the growing legacy of the band and its upper tier of legendary shows. Crowd and band and natural elements all combined to bring this most joyous occasion to frenzied heights, and afterward fans were full of wonderment and excitement as highlights were recounted in the crowded parking lots, bars, hotels, restaurants, and sidewalks of Berkeley.

After greeting the crowd with friendly nods and smiles, the band took their places at their agreed upon-starting time and commenced to conjure the metallic crunch of Tom Waits “Going Out West.” Indeed, we were all out west, and the dramatic coastal elements of sea and land crashing together were evoked and added to Panic’s fire and air. The theme of movement and change are evident in the song, a concept that would show up at various times this night. Parts of “West” are spare and clock-like in their precision, and John Bell’s rhythm guitar musings blended beautifully with John “Jojo” Herman’s bleeding Hammond organ, it’s tone gushing from the revolving Leslie speaker that releases it. It was interesting to see Jojo putting in his earplugs about four minutes in, secure in the sound and the mix and knowing that the band was off to the races. A brief pause led into “Disco”, with David Schools’ bass guitar nudging the song higher and higher. Jojo added flowery piano quotes to the edges of the song, and after a brief urgent drop-in of congas and timbales by percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, Herman moved to the front of his keyboard log cabin to add tasteful clavinet grooves to the heart of the song. As the tempo slowed, the mini-epic “Diner” emerged. From my vantage point, looking down and across to Sunny from the three-fourths of the way up the seats Houser-side, when Bell sang “I just love to watch her hands move”, I mingled the lyrics with an appreciation of Sunny's hands, his tactile contact with a battery of acoustic instruments. “Diner” leapt with guitar and piano, and followed with the two instruments gearing down and lightly accentuating the Bell’s vocal musings on the soulfullness of sisterhood. As “Diner” climaxed, the staccato drumbeat and guitar riff of “Porch Song” began. “Porch”, the oldest WSP original that would be played this night, sounded across the Southland like a groover’s call to arms in the late 80’s, alerting folks to the existence of a exuberant band out of Athens, GA, that had begun to forge their place in the pantheon of rock and roll. More than a decade later, the familiar path of the song allows the musicians to slip into comfortable steps, but they are more alert and experienced on this path than almost any other. Set placement of this song was masterfulThe Moontimes Bar and Grill was open for business, the six employees onstage bid you welcome! The sound-blowout end of “Porch” was reached, and with that pause the first measure of the night ended with roaring approval from the full house. Schools took over the lead vocal slot as “Watching the Sleeping Man” uncoiled, and he sounded clear and confident throughout. During the meat of the song, Bell strolled over to Sunny’s congas and leaned closer as they both sunk into the music, the individual parts joining and complementing each other to make a huge whole. Herman’s clavinet again drove beat-daggers into the masses, and Bell, back in position, pulled out a slide and applied it to his Washburn hollow-body, and begun to coax a new direction for the band, which proved to be “Stop Breaking Down”. His tasteful and light licks with the slide gave way to lead guitar and piano breaks during the song, before a last quick verse and chorus cutlet brought the song to an end. As the crowd cheered, a very few glowsticks flew: tossed with glee, seemingly; none had laser intensity or a scorpion’s sting. The closing movement of Set One this night would be the trio of “Jack” and “Action Man”, followed by “One Arm Steve”. A brief Houser guitar intro “Jack” gave way to JB’s story, with Todd Nance’s drumming finding a perfect comfort spot in the song. Houser’s guitar had a the twang of a sitar during his harmonious breaks, and Sunny’s chimes added a playful shading. “Action Man” raced like its subject, the legendary thoroughbred horse Man O’ War, but the band never let briskness cross into disorder. After a brief pause, the homage to the band’s hometown identifiable doorman, “One Arm Steve”, was ushered in. The three-note quote from the song rang like a bell from Houser’s guitar, and he followed with a tuneful and restrained lead. The entire band was energetic behind Herman’s vocals, and the four measure climax to the song hit hard and closed out with audience cheers and adulation evident. By a very subjective estimate, the entirety and vast variables of this particular hour-long set of WSP’s music did not quite reach the heights of the previous night’s first set, if only because Friday night the crowd sounded as if it wanted an encore for that first set. Then again, the first set of any tour after a longish break from the road is always special and makes comparisons suffer.

Set Two opened with a compact “Give”, the song the band played on “Late Night with David Letterman” this past July. As one can do with unknowable scenarios, I wondered how many of the capacity crowd had gotten their first listen to WSP as a result of the that television show, maybe picked up “Don’t Tell the Band” and were now enjoying their first concert. For those folks, I hope expectations were met and the whole experience was a blast! Houser’s guitar emitted hot-rodded overdrive screams, and his right foot teased the volume control pedal to spectacular effect. Jojo did not hop around behind the keyboards as he did on “Letterman”, but his enthusiasm was evident. The stride of “Pigeons” appeared, another mini-epic unloosed. JB went directly into the verse, and I was taken back to outside the Georgia Theater one New Years in the early part of the 90’s, hearing the song leaking out from behind the heavy wooden doors, one of which manned by the aforementioned doorman Steve. Houser plucked leads that hovered and dipped, and then Schools’ multiple bass runs led to a bright keyboard sequence that wound up with a clavinet-led exit from “Pigeons”. Several times towards the end of “Pigeons”, Bell focused his sight lines back over his left shoulder to Schools, appreciating and vamping off the bass lines that the latter was engaged in. Jojo pulled his vocal mike in to position for “Tall Boy”, where Itta Bina, Mississippi, gets one of its infrequent song mentions. was in motion. During this selection, Bell continued his tour of the stage as he leaned in with Houser, and later Schools dove low on his Modulus’ fretboard. The song morphed and slowed to a trot with Sunny clip-clopping his way into Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman”. JB bent his strings and poured out the song, its main character a cautionary tale that exists everywhere. The clavinet popped in again, and Houser continued to toss off screaming leads. The simple main passage of “Pusherman” gave way to a breakdown that was too early in the set to be a precursor to drums, but was filled with School’s spaciness and the eager synthesizer (first time used in the run? I think so) stylings of Herman, both of which combined for a distinctive orbiting effect in the segment. A crew member set up a microphone between Sunny and JB, as the band and crowd welcomed Cecil “Peanut” Daniels to the front part of the stage. Daniels, who had briefly joined the drummers during their showcase the night before, had his effects-enabled sax hanging around his neck, and he added greatly to the next song, “Down”. Drummer Nance sang a conversational and warm lead vocal on “Down”, which had been soundchecked that afternoon. He mingled his voice with that of JB, and Col. Bruce Hampton’s two “sons” did the family proud. Peanut chipped in with a “less is more” approach during the sung sections, but during his solo completely wailed with the selected sound of a full-horn section from his sax before he switched to a high alto pitch for a few measures. The bright sax solo brought smiles to many faces and added a texture that was well-orchestrated. The best was yet to come from Peanut, who really added to the next song, an ultra-rare cover of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up”. Sunny was on the congas and timbales heavily at the start of the song, and Peanut added high-harmony vocals before Houser wah-wahhed an understated and tasteful lead. Peanut then selected a effect that approximated a steel drum band, and with his lead flavoring the concoction, the song continued to work well. Houser led the way out of the reggae of “Stir It Up” and Jojo again wheeled around to his synthesizer as Bell left the stage, walking off and squatting behind the stage scaffolds to watch the deconstruction of the remaining gathering. For a moment, there was a three piece arrangement of Schools, Houser, and Nance slugging away, offering a version of the basement bands that the latter two played together in back in their adolescence in Tennessee. Schools sunk to his knees and brought his bass close to his effects pedals as Sunny began his percussion voyage, which was wonderful this night. He tamped his congas with his elbow, used his feet on a high hat cymbal throughout, and then moved to the tiny frontway bongos, soon to set what looked like a prolonged speed record on them. Peanut emerged sitting at Todd’s drumset, riding the cymbals and punching the bass drum. Nance himself was on a shaker, and as Ortiz took a stick in one hand and beat a cowbell while playing a bongo with his right hand, the three drummers produced a highly danceable percussion tapestry. This arrangement led to a drumset handoff from Peanut to Nance, and the beat was kept as Todd provided a mountain range and Sunny produced the snow to glide over the tops of the peaks. A talking drum was produced and played for great effect, and added its haunting voice to the presentation. Schools rejoined the drummers, and the three produced a composition that was reminiscent if not exactly representative, in my opinion, of “Tears of a Woman”. As Schools looped, Nance struck just cymbal bells, and if you watched closely you could see Sunny, back to the crowd, shrugging his shoulders and stretching out for a moment, a private, seconds-long, break that was the only time all night when he was onstage and not playing. The rest of the band rejoined the beat manufacturers, and a gentle piano lead took the band into “Pilgrims”. As it had in “Going Out West”, a theme of movement and transition was summoned, as a night on the band bus, recounting past trips and watching cities fade and sharpen along with the radio, was related. Ortiz swept his chimes, and Herman’s piano snuck into the song like cold night air leaking in through a cracked bus window at 65 m.p.h. The drum pattern as this song closes has varying accents over the one measure pause between longer passages, and Todd never dropped a count. Eyes again swung to Sunny as he attacked his congas and timbales, harkening the start of “Fishwater”. Legions of fans, familiar with the band’s touring schedule and their shared end-of-October destination, howled as Bell intoned “Fourteen days/Gonna find myself in New Orleans” over Herman’s bleating organ. The song was one the band worked into a bubbling cauldron, with the song’s central three-note refrain always a guidepost. The band veered away from “Fishwater” by introducing a rare version of David Bromberg’s “Sharon”, with Bell singing the confessional after some playful instrumental teases of “There’s a Place in France”. The crowd responded lustily, recognizing the song’s reference to “the same rowdy crowd that was here last night (being) back again”. The jam out of “Sharon” lifted off, and once again Bell acknowledged Sunny and Schools by turning to his left, walking over to them and locking in. Passages of “Rock” may or may not have been summoned during the soaring jam that unhurriedly led back to “Fishwater”. As the band hopped back to finish the song, the sometimes fevered pitch of the road sprung from Sunny’s blocks and cowbells, underlying the vocal interplay of Schools and Bell. The ending of the song gave way to perhaps the loudest ovation thus far for WSP in Berkeley, as the lights dimmed and strangers high-fived in the audience.

The band would return for a business-like encore, featuring fIREHOSE’s “Sometimes” and the Herman-sung “Blackout”. In “Sometimes”, the motion of “this highway song” was accented by Houser’s guitar solos, which shared a similar “hot-rodded” sound as those earlier in “Give”. Toward the end of the song, Schools and Bell again traded vocals, smiling at each other from the corners of their eyes as they watched for cues. The rollicking piano of “Blackout” took over, and the band was a perfect rolling roar over the full bodied slide guitar. Before the song ended, Herman mused about having to move back to Mississippi, but the crowd at the Greek had him for at least a few more moments that night and for a matinee the next afternoon, and they were ecstatic. The admonition to “pick my head up off the ground” was met with loud approval and appreciation by the throng, and WSP closed out the second night of their stay at The Greek Theatre with enthusiasm and great effect.

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