Widespread Panic, Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA- 7/26
"There may be better musicians out there, but I don't want to listen to
them." This quote by Colonel Bruce Hampton from the Hanson Brothers movie
"The Earth Will Swallow You," might best describe my feelings for Widespread
Panic in general. Seventeen years after its inception, this band is facing its most difficult hurdle
yet: the heartbreaking loss of lead guitarist Michael Houser to
cancer. Foremost, as a lifelong friend, his loss is a tremendous blow to those
five other guys on stage. Moreover, "Widespread" would be losing "Panic." "Panic," Mikey's nickname from college due to the panic attacks he suffered, has been a key ingredient in what
makes up the group's sound today. The band has dealt with the hardship of Mikey's illness with
class and dignity, with as much privacy as their profession will allow.
However, every time they have gone on stage since July 2nd, 2002, they have had to
deal with this situation publicly. Although the band is not the same, and
at times the members had a hard time dealing with the musical vacuum left behind,
each of them is playing their hearts out right now. This is why Colonel
Bruce's sentiments ring true for me, specifically on Friday, July 26th
2002, at the Greek theater in Berkeley, CA.
As the sun began to set, the crowd at the Greek on that summer evening gave
an especially warm welcome to Widespread as they took the stage during what must have been the hardest tour the band has ever encountered, both musically and emotionally.
The band responded with howls and a cascade of symbols to signal the opening to the
Talking Heads cover "Papa Legba." Dave Schools kicked in some deep bass
drops and he group was out of the gates. This version seemed slower in
tempo, but solid. As JB began to yelp "a little loose in our bodies" the sax
of Randall Bramlett settled into the background and George
McConnell hit the signature "Legba" notes on his guitar, but
not with the utmost confidence. Both Bramlett and McConnell are Widespread's
answer for now to the absence of Mikey. Although, Bramlett and McConnell
struggle at times to fill Mikey's big shoes and gel with the rest of the
band, they are apt musicians, and seem to have rising to this difficult
task. As Legba built in intensity, and JB swelled up in his gravelly voice,
McConnell went into his first solo of the evening. At this key moment of the
opening song, a feedback problem in the monitors began to peak right next to
George. He handled it well by letting the band texture the groove until
a tech could get control of the problem. After about 10 seconds, the problem
was solved and George went into a solid, delayed solo. His solo
climbed the scales till he could launch into some of the higher keys and the
crowd went along for the ride. For me, this was typical of how the band
handled difficulties they faced during the night and all summer tour. They
drove it back to normal tempo and exited the song intact.
After a few moments, Jojo and Sunny cranked that rhythm machine back into
action. They traded off that familiar exchange between drums and percussion
and busted into "Wondering." There are some intricate signature guitar parts on this particular song, but what gave this "Wondering" its gusto was that drop
beat between the lyrics "Our emotions (bam) they all get (bam) tangled up
around, again" and JB's enthusiasm. McConnell handled
Mikey's guitar parts by playing them as chords, rather that single notes. This approach didn't add anything to the song, but didn't interfere with it either.
McConnell however did add his own creative licks on the solo build into "Oh,
I've been driving….". George and the whole band now seemed to be building
confidence and, most of all, having fun. Dave Schools every now and then
would look over and smile, head bobbing in approval. JoJo and McConnell
seemed to tackle the second solo together. McConnell high on the scales,
shifted into a dirty effect, and back again. Some of his style seemed to
reflect that rockabilly style of Chuck Berry at times. Jojo followed with a
cascade of keys and teased what sounded like "Lovelight." This took them
straight into a jam and a really nice transition into "Little Lilly."
McConnell and Bramlett both hit the intro licks strong. As the
song progressed it took on that full sound that Widespread is known to push
out. JB tore out those lyrics "round, round, round she goes" and built the
song up with the intensity it needed to segue into the second part of the
song where it starts to roll. As the beat gathered steam,
Widespread threw the beat into a higher gear for a solid "Blackout Blues."
"Blackout Blues" is a great song to get the crowd into the show, and tonight
was no exception. The musical discussion seemed to jump off stage into the
crowd as JoJo professed that he's "going back to Mississippi, Before I lose
my mind." Jojo and McConnell again handled most of the
solos on this song and both did well. George seems to handle the blues and
rock tunes better and flat out hit this version on the head. It
being Jojo's song, he didn't disappoint either. The crowd went nuts as
Widespread finished out the song and the band went directly into "Who Do You
Although I'd heard this song in Austin, a week before, it was great to hear
again. Todd's snare led the way followed by JoJo's key's. JB ripped the
opening lines out and the crowd hollered back at him. Bramlett again added his distinct yet subtle sax to this song, but this time it was deeper, almost bass in tone. Dave kept everyone together while jazzing it up by hitting the off-beat as well.
McConnell took the solo with care, both up and down the scales, but without
sounding repetitive. Jojo dropped in at the end to add texture to McConnell's
lead. They seemed to play this version a little more jazzy than rocking, but
it was well constructed and inventive. "Who Do You Belong To?" came to an
dead stop with JB's howling "As far as I can tell" and the crowd burst into
Set II opened with your classic JBism. "This is song about a man and his
horse," followed directly thereafter by Todd's roaring drums into "Action Man." I thought this an apt way to open the second half. JB's voice howled
out as the entire band really kicked it, slowing only to build it back up to McConnell's solo. The
solo was dirty, but efficient for what this song is all about. It really
seemed to whip the crowd into a frenzy.
Next up was "Fishwater." This song was slower in tempo than I'm used to here,
but jazzy. Bramlett was very smooth with his sax in the background. You
could clearly hear the crowd chanting "more, more, more" in its best JB
growl as the band went to work. With the cool bay wind whipping in Berkeley
that evening, the song took on an eerie feeling as they traveled into the
drums insert of the song. This eventually built back to the rhythm and the
rest of the band jumped back in. Jojo was working some crazy effects on his
keyboard behind McConnell's subtle Country slide solo. From here the whole
band just let go and let the whole song groove.
"Diner" followed, and this version opened quite strong. As the song progressed, the
band seemed to promise a head thrashing ending. McConnell's solo seemed to
stand in contrast to Mikey's in that it wasn't as hard driving, but again it
showed promise and creativity, especially as Dave started to break down
those beats and its eventual crescendo. JB began his rap about "thank you,
yesterday's donuts would be fine" as Jojo kept the melody shifting in the
background. JB kept it short and they brought the song around to its second
stage of jamming. A tad bit of noodling ensued, and George seemed to want
the lead. It was given over to George and he began to take it somewhere
between a very spacey direction and pulsating groove. Somewhere in there, it
they seemed to drop the ball on the song. I'm not sure what happened
exactly but Jojo seemed to stop the song and rebuild it again. I wouldn't
say "train wreck", but rather a creative license might have expired just a
bit on this particular jam of the song. The band slowly built the song back
up between Bramlett's subtle sax until Todd brought about the opening beat
for Greta. This again was another example of the musical hurdles the band
faces with adding two new members and their perseverance in tackling those
The end of "Greta" yielded short section of jamming occurred, and then eventually
went into some serious dissonance led by Randall Bramlett's sax. This gave way to an angry implosion of sound, each instrument falling off, one after the other, Jojo
and JB left the stage first as Dave and McConnell traded licks and the whole
damn thing grew into some kind of space psychedelic melody backed by Sunny
and Todd. Finally Dave and McConnell left the stage, but not before Dave
left us with a deafening bass bomb, letting it rumble as he walked back
stage with the bass as if to say "Let there be Drums…."
During this segment the crowd stirred a bit in their seats. Some watched
intently while others went to get provisions and relieve themselves. I've
always thought of this part of the show as the Lounge act (till the end that
is). It's great to sit back and listen and catch your breath as they beat
the hell out of their instruments. It's always interesting to see what Sunny
will pull out of his bag of percussive tricks as well. This version was
around 15 minutes long and seemed to everything from Xylophone, to tom-tom's
to the inside of the drum that Sunny used to get a scratching sound. As they
rounded the eighth minute, Todd let'er rip on the drums and people began to
boogie. At the 13th minute they were in a full on drum explosion and
signaling to the crowd it was about that time to come out of drums with the
Sunny's own bass bomb, the old didgeridoo.
As the band slowly filed back onto stage, Dave came out and gave a nice bass
solo. This is usually the highlight of the show for myself. I love to watch
them layer the music right out of drums. From thoughtful to dirty ass, sting-bending, laying-down-the
straight funk bombs, Dave gave a fine, fine performance that led
right into "Arleen" which was nice and thick on the funkiness. This is
another song that Bramlett adds a nice layer to with his sax. Sunny did a
little "inside of drum" breakbeat scratching to back Bramlett's intro. Then
JB gave those opening lines…."Woke up about 10:13, six pack of stout, and
a stick of sensi." Crowd goes nuts and begins the rap about the neighbor
girl whose face looks good but her body wasn't ready. George took a little
solo in the middle of all this. No hesitation or uncomfortableness about this
solo, however. Sounded quite tight leading into a dirty "Telephone ringing" by JB. He actually made his guitar sound like a telephone ringing and was grinning the whole time. Finally all
settled into "Arlene was a dream" and the call and return of "Can't stand
it"...."NO." From here the tempo picked up into "Time Is Free"
This was Colonel Bruce number was teased in Austin, but not officially
played since 10/27/01, and only played it 9 times before this night. People
were looking around like "what?!" This was officially the "rare number" of
the evening and well placed. They all played it heavy and fast, and George
seemed especially comfortable tackling this song. People seemed to be moving
hard and having a good time. The song settled down and Jojo led it into
space followed by Bramlett on sax, very softly leading into "Blue Indian."
Everyone swayed to the opening licks of this song and grins
began to spread wide. Yet another song Bramlett's sax adds a nice texture. I
stood there arms folded in satisfaction, head nodding to JB's imagery. Hats
came off and the whole room began to glow with positive vibes.
Dave turned all this positive energy back in on itself for the Jam on "Makes
Sense To Me". JB again painted the picture as the band pulsed behind.
McConnell threw down one hell of a solo and the place went crazy. Jojo
pounded out his keys and drove this song home to finish off the second set
and send it into encore.
They finished of the evening with a rousing "Nobody's Loss" and "Sometimes"
as encores and took a bow.
There might be more talented musicians out there, but I don't want to hear