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Published: 2003/05/05
by Chip Schramm

Widespread Panic, Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium, New Orleans, LA- 5/2

Widespread Panic has had the privilege of playing New
Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival every other year
for the past 6 years. They've also had the luxury of
adding a more intimate night show at the auditorium
adjacent to Louis Armstrong Park on a subsequent
evening the last 2 times they've played in the spring.

This year they did things somewhat in reverse, playing the auditorium on a Friday, and then performing for the masses at the fairgrounds the next afternoon. All but the most casual followers of the band recognize New Orleans as a town that always brings out their best performances, not just during Jazzfest, but often around Halloween time as well.

I got to see the band for the first time since Mike
Houser's passing, in New Orleans back on Halloween.
In the 7 shows I've seen them play since, I've
witnessed some growing pains for a band that was so
comfortable in the same skin for many years. But the
chances I've gotten to see George McConnell evolve as
the lead guitarist in a band that can play everything
from rock to reggae to blues to country all in one
hour's worth of music has been more than encouraging.
Each show I've seen has been better than the previous
one in performance quality with only one exception.

All of that said, Widespread Panic's performance at
the Municipal Auditorium on Friday night was far and
away the best concert that those 6 musicians have
played together in their current formation. George
had done a good job of learning the actual songs
through the end of last summer and especially in the
fall. Pairing the song list down from the 100+ tunes
they previously had in the rotation to a more
manageable 50-60 certainly didn't hurt the cause
there. But learning the actual songs was the easy
part. The real trouble spots for the band have been
the segues in-between songs and improvisational jams
that provide a unique fingerprint at each one of their
live performances.

These problems seemed far behind in the rear view
mirror during this show. They opened with Papa
Johnny Road, one of the strongest songs from their
new album, "Ball." Kind of a slinky, poppy, blues
tune, it has a warm, inviting slide-guitar hook and an
inexplicably catchy chorus "I've got a real good mind
to beat you senseless." Because the album songs
hadn't been performed live before this tour, most of
their original performances were just as short as the
album versions. But on this night, Papa Johnny
Road broke out of the studio constraints and took
on a life of its own, with a nice jam at the end.

Greta was pretty good with a strong jam at the
end, just like it usually has. Love Tractor
followed and was also nice and Thought Sausage built
up to a very strong climax with George stepping up and
he should in the lead guitar spot.

The Jack was really heartwarming. I struggled
with the one I heard in concert a few weeks previous
in Philadelphia not because it was played poorly, but
because it was my first time to hear it without Mikey
Houser on lead guitar. That made me feel sad, and I
was a little unprepared for that. But Friday night's
version was slow, deliberate and beautiful.

That brings me to an interesting point. There are
many songs that seem like they are slower now than
they were with the old lineup. That seems to be a
by-product of Todd Nance and Dave Schools' patience
with their new lead guitarist, since they clearly want
him to have a chance to learn all the twists in the
old tunes instead of trying to force things upon him
faster that he's ready for.

Worry seemed like a very well chosen song in
the setlist at that point. It also seems to suit the
strengths of the current lineup well.. There was no
slowing down of this number for either McConnell or
anybody else onstage. Sunny Ortiz in particular has
been really playing well, both on the new album and
live in concert. His staccato conga beat is always a
good indicator that there is some worryin' ahead.

The old Beanland tune Doretha and blues
standard Fixin’ to Die were both good, and
Luther Dickinson joined them on those 2. After the
North Mississippi All-Stars played an inspiring set to
open the evening, having them come back up to
collaborate with Panic was a given. The jam session
that resulted wasn't one for the record books, but it
was well played with
Luther and George trading leads and riffs throughout. Then Makes Sense To Me that closed the set
provided a handy time to catch my breath and beat
everybody else out to the line at the concession

Set 2 opened auspiciously with the first
Monstrosity. I had a feeling from hearing this
one on the album that it would be ever bigger live,
and I was right. It was a great tune for the first
time played and seems sure to get even bigger on
future outings. JB sang the lyrics with passion,
annunciating the words just like he does on "Ball,"
nailing them with notable precision. From there, the
strongest segment of the show began. I'm sure many
Widespread Panic fans have heard the staple
Travelin’ Light many times before, but the one
on this night was absolutely over the top. I'm not
usually too excited when they play Travelin'
Light, but this night they grabbed my attention
and did not let it go. Once again, George stepped up
to the plate and drove the jam high into the
stratosphere, without overplaying or leaving the
rest of the band behind. This was a problem with his
solos for a little while; especially back in the fall
when he wasn't as familiar with the changes in each
particular song.

Action Man was where I personally felt that
George finally broke through. The song is well suited
to his style of guitar playing anyway, but he played a
short little guitar riff right before the whole band
ripped into the song that was unlike anything I've
ever heard Widespread Panic play. It set the hairs on
the back of my neck on edge. Seeking out the tapes is
really the only way to get an idea of what the little
snippet of a lead-in sounded like. From there it was
an instrumental free-for-all. They jammed Action
Man long and loud, segueing into one of the best
instrumental covers the band has ever pulled off, Pink
Floyd's Interstellar Overdrive. Dark, dank,
and nasty, it was the highlight of the show, if not
the weekend, for the band. That jam seemed like it
was going into drums, but ended up flowing into
Ride Me High instead.

That was strong, and so was the Papa’s Home
that followed, much like the version they played in
Philly. But then something funny happened. The only
really weak moment of the show (song preference
notwithstanding) was when the band was trying to come
out of the mini-drums and end the song. It just
seemed like the 4 non-drummers were unsure of how to
grab the reins again and stop the horse. Nobody
wanted to take charge. What made it funnier to me was
that the band had the EXACT same problem in Philly —
so much that I felt like I was watching an instant

Taking their 2 performances in New Orleans as a whole,
that would be the only over-arching criticism I had.
Sometimes in the middle of a jam or transitional
sequence, Todd Nance and Sunny Ortiz were pounding
away on the drums, but the other 4 guys playing
instruments kind of looked around at one another
unsure of how to proceed to the next song. More often
than not, Dave Schools bridged the gap and played
"lead bass" to show everyone the way, but ultimately,
George McConnell's instincts will need to take over
and grab the initiative as he full embraces his role.

But the band didn't bogged down for too long before
getting things started again with a very
measured, reggae version of Stop-Go. Schools
was in session and John Bell even threw in a little
Stir It Up rap for good measure. The All
Time Low to close the show was just as fast,
strong, and loud as it should be, and always a welcome
2nd set closer in my book.

The encore was quite a neurotic pairing. Travelin'
Man is a song that I didn't expect to hear – this
weekend or ever. Hearing it for the first time was
like receiving a little glimmer of light from the man
in the moon himself. The last song written by Mike
Houser for Widespread Panic, its performance was very
pretty and melodic with John Bell doing all the
singing himself. I kept looking up to see if maybe
Todd or Dave were helping him on backing vocals, but
they just sat back and let JB massage the lyrical
magic all by himself. There were many fans who
speculated that this song might not ever be taken off
the shelf, but everyone in attendance was rapt by the
first performance of this symbolically powerful gem.

Not being one to miss an opportunity to sing during
the encore, Jojo Hermann played Blackout to
send us out into the night. I remember enjoying
Blackout as an encore when it was played just
as frequently, back around 1997. 6 years later
though, it's a pretty tired tune. Jojo has so many
great songs that he's written both with Beanland and
also his newer solo projects, it's just a shame that
he won't take the time to play anything other than
Daisy Mae, another recent encore choice that's
been particularly unpopular in fan circles.

The funniest quote from the entire night was overheard
from 2 of the old black ladies working the concession
stand as several fans were leaving the show during
Blackout… "That song sounds just like Little Richard
— yeah, Little Richard."

Kidding about song choice and piano players aside, the
show Widespread Panic played on the Friday of Jazzfest
weekend was one of, if not the best show they've
played in the post-Michael Houser era. I for one hope
that they have many more and greater shows like that
in the future.

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