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Reviews > Shows

Published: 2001/11/15
by Chip Schramm

Widespread Panic, Kiefer/UNO Lakefront Arena, New Orleans, LA- 10/27

Widespread Panic returned to New Orleans, as they habitually do, on the last weekend of October for a three-night stand. With the actual date of Halloween drifting further into the week, these weren’t really spook shows per se, but the band certainly brought enough treats to the door to leave any fan satisfied after all was said and done. The last 2 nights were full of new songs, special guests, and all-around solid playing. Col. Bruce Hampton, mentor to Panic and a slew of others in the music industry, opened the Saturday and Sunday shows with his Code Talkers, a band quite worthy of the early set slot.

The interesting thing about the Code Talkers is how they can differ so much from previous Hampton projects, yet still mesh with his talking blues style at the right times. Indeed, even the moments when the Colonel sat in with Panic as a guest seemed to indicate that he was very much invigorated by his current surroundings as he played and sang his rear end off all weekend. Many of the traditional songs from Hampton’s songbook like "Workin’ On a Building," "I’m So Glad," and "Fixin’ To Die" were still in the Code Talkers set, but the general emphasis was more on bluegrass than blues or folk music.

The band member of the Code Talkers that impressed the most was Bobby Lee Rodgers, who seemed just as much a front-man as Hampton. He stepped confidently to the front of the stage for banjo solos and instrumental jams, but also sang very competent vocals on songs like "My Grandma’s Got a Motorcycle" and "Body In The Lake." His songs seemed to have a whimsical, humorous slant to them, and his interplay between fellow band members was very tight. Tom Beauer, a part-time Code Talker from Boston did an admirable job on the keyboard both nights. Rumors have him joining the band full-time in the not-so-distant future.

The second night of the Panic weekend had some very interesting moments, but didn’t quite peak as high overall as the other two nights. The first set opened with "Surprise Valley," always a strong call to get things started. "She Caught the Katy" was an excellent choice to follow, as the band segued right into it. I had that Taj Mahal nugget stuck in my head the entire week previous, so I’m glad the band picked up on my wavelength and worked it out. "Climb To Safety" followed in typical fashion and the set seemed to be building some steam. "One Arm Steve" was not a bad version, but didn’t build much on the momentum that the band had gathered up to that point.

That made sense, because the "Mercy" that followed calmed things back down again. It was a really pretty Mercy, with JB caressing each and every vocal bar along the way. But when it segued into "Waker," another non-jamming song, it became apparent that the band was saving the goods for later in the evening. "Greta" followed in the usual fashion, as the band built momentum coming out of the jam at the end. They played this out pretty well, and went straight into their New Orleans anthem, "Fishwater," for the obligatory local references and furious jam that goes with them.

It seemed like the band would be ready to rip things into high gear to close the set. No such luck as they took a break to welcome Danny Hutchens and Eric Carter onstage for a collaborative rendition of "Makes Sense To Me." Even overlooking the fact that "Makes Sense" is by far my least favorite Bloodkin song of all time, there was some apparent awkwardness between the band members on this one. Danny looked out of place without a guitar. He paced around the stage singing the words with his microphone, but did not look comfortable at all. It seemed more like the Panic boys dragged them onstage as opposed to them volunteering, but no matter. Set one was in the books.

With second sets on this tour looking generally stronger than the first (as it should be, in my opinion,) high hopes were pinned on the last half of Saturday night. Needless to say, the boys would not disappoint. The suspense began to mushroom as the crew moved in an unusually conspicuous vocal mic over Todd’s drum kit when the band came back onstage. While most folks mumbled "Down" under their breath, the band brought forth the long awaited "Cynic." A staple of the Barbara Cue live song rotation, this one was made most famous from the studio outtakes bootleg with a sample on it.

There was some disagreement amongst fans as to whether or not Widespread Panic would ever play "Cynic" live. Some argued that it was "too country" to fit in, while others claimed the band would not play it simply because they were mad that the demo tape was leaked and distributed to the public before the production of "Don’t Tell the Band" was even finished in the studio. Either way, this one was well worth the wait. Todd’s vocals have improved by leaps and bounds since he first sang lead vocals on "You’ll Be Fine" in 1997.

With a "new-new" song out on the table, it seemed like a logical move to follow it with a few relatively older new songs, "Action Man" and "Imitation Leather Shoes." I for one still think "Action Man" was better as an instrumental, but it’s so hard to understand what JB is singing anyway, that’s usually a moot point. "Imitation" was penetrating and evil, following its usually dark credo, with a solid group chorus that continues to impress. Now to follow some "new-new" and "old-new" why not throw in some "new-old?"

There were definitely quite a few slack-jawed tapers in the house as the boys broke into the instrumental "The Earth Will Swallow You," last performed in October of 1990. There were vague reports that the band might have been rehearsing this one, but it seemed pretty doubtful until they actually played it onstage. I for one had no idea what it was at the time. But it was dark and brooding, so it fit the setlist perfectly. The overall performance sounded a few rehearsals short of its full potential, but it’s always encouraging to see the band dust off a song from over a decade ago.

From there, they band segued into another ultra-rare cover, Jimmy Cliff’s "Harder They Come." Performed only for the second time, this one seemed more symbolically appropriate, given the current political situation in the U.S. Who wouldn’t "rather be a free man in my grave than living as a puppet or a slave?" Overall it seems like reggae songs don’t really match the band’s strengths, but it’s hard to argue with a classic tune like this one.

I figured they would surely go into drums out of that, but the crew quickly moved additional equipment onstage so that Col. Bruce Hampton could make a guest appearance. Even with the number of tunes that he might play diminished slightly based on what he had already performed with the Code Talkers, "Time Is Free" was a good choice. Not the most original selection, but the performance was the proof on this one. Hampton played and sang like I hadn’t seen in years. Almost all the fans were in complete accord (for once) that this was an all time high as far as Col. Bruce’s guest stints go. He just had an energy, a little spark, that was totally intangible. Like JB said, "here’s our daddy." For sure.

Drums was drums, with the added addition of Dr. Scott on percussion. What came out of drums, however, was outstanding. The "Red Hot Mama" was absolutely scorching. I mean, any time they play this song in Louisiana, is HAS to be good. The rhythmic hurricane of Ortiz, Scott, Schools, and Nance was a knockout punch that just kept hitting over and over with no mercy whatsoever. "I’m Not Alone" fanned the flames a bit, yet upheld the momentum without any real letdown. JB’s vocal annunciation was right on time, and the placement in the setlist was well balanced. "Sometimes" carried the beat up to the end of the set, although it does get a bit repetitive without any extended jamming.

Now for their finale, the band went into a scene that simply wasn’t in the script. Oh, they meant to play "Bowlegged Woman," but the interpretive monologue that transpired in the middle is already something of legend. Without trying to repeat all of it, I’ll just say that somewhere between the bowed legs and knocked knees was the most persuasive, seductive string of "raps" that John Bell has ever sung. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think that he was actually gonna forget to sing the last verse by the end. So just get the tape and just trust me when I say "Don’t mind the kitty cat. He likes that shit."

The encore paring of "Nobody’s Loss" and "Cream Puff War" was a good combination. One slow song followed by a rocker to close out a Saturday night is always a good formula. There were those fans in attendance who were hoping for rare cover tunes that never materialized, but that’s more the product of being spoiled during past New Orleans runs than anything else. Overall the shows were well-played and contained special guests who added to the shows without taking away from the overall strength of the band. From that end, the streak is alive. I have always enjoyed seeing Widespread Panic in New Orleans.

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