Widespread Panic, Warfield Theater- 8/7-10
Arnold Schwarzenegger may be the next Governor of California. This is what our cab driver is telling us while he's cruising up and down the steep streets of San Francisco the morning after, trying to get me and my friend Andy back into the vicinity of the Warfield theater, where our rental car is locked in an underground parking garage after we forgot to retrieve it within a half hour after the end of the show on the first night of a four-night run of Widespread Panic shows. We don't know what to say- there's something scary and yet strangely thrilling about the idea of having The Terminator running one of the most influential states in the American political arena: it's like discovering unknown territory without really knowing how dangerous the terrain and climate are.
Unknown territory seems like a good way to describe the state of WSP right now, too. Andy and I have been seeing shows together now for only a couple of years, but we both agree that what we've seen since guitarist George McConnell came into the fold is…well, necessary evolution. George isn't ever going to be Mikey, and he doesn't have to be. After what I saw in San Francisco, I can tell you that WSP is still the best damn rock band in the land. Over the course of four nights in the historic Warfield, which culminated on Sunday in the one-year anniversary of Michael Houser's death, we were given a vision of WSP in a phase of transformation.
On Thursday night, we had seats at the rock show, in the lower loge of the balcony, in between JB and George with a full view of the entire stage. I'm something of a setlist fanatic, and I felt The Boys made a clear statement by opening the run with a song from Ball, "Thin Air (Smells Like Mississippi)": this is the new WSP, they were saying to us. There is no doubt in my mind that everyone who has followed Widespread over the years mourns the loss of Houser, first and foremost his companions onstage; but this band hasn't missed a beat—they aren't going anywhere. They are still playing their souls out for us onstage, and did we really expect anything less? The set was fundamentally solid, with a nice "Stop Breakin' Down Blues" into a "Down" (yes, I noticed this), and some nasty jamming bridging the "Barstools" and "Give". It's really encouraging sometimes to see JB stride over like a sheriff to George and jam with him. It brings back good memories. The highlight of the set for me, though, was the "All Time Low" to close it out: technically perfect (George has this one down!), Dave Schools belting out the lyrics while his caveman hair blew straight back behind him. The guy on my left leaned over and said to me: "You gotta remember, these guys are rock stars." Yes! Remember that.
The second set opened with a "Knocking 'Round the Zoo" (on a Thursday night, of course). A little too predictable, if you ask me, but I dealt with it. I really like it when JoJo gets turned loose these days, so the "1×1" worked well. George has his hands around this one, too, probably since it's a Beanland song. I confess that I miss the explosion of sound Mikey provided on "Surprise Valley", but they've compensated for it by having JoJo play filler around George's lead, and it seems to work. The encore was a sublime "And It Stoned Me" followed by a song that seems destined to become a new staple, "Papa Johnny Road." Something about hearing JB sing, "I got a real good mind/ To beat you senseless," cracks me up. Once again, welcome to the new WSP.
The next two nights we had floor tickets and stood in line outside the Warfield for four or five hours while every transient in San Francisco's Tenderloin walked by and asked for a handout, just so we could ride the first rail between JB and George. My buddy Andy likes the rail at the Warfield, because you can rest your drinks there. Once we settled into our spot with some cold ones, I was thinking to myself how all the work that goes into a WSP show for us always seems to pay off in spades. Anything you do with passion takes work.
Schools got the motor cranked on Friday night with the mean crunch of an "Imitation Leather Shoes" and the dirty thump of "Bowlegged Woman." Just two songs into the set and every freak in the house was getting down and singing in unison. For some reason, I like the dark and dirty Panic songs the best. Very crisp ''Diner>Little Lily." The best song of the set for me was Little Kin: I've always liked the lyrics to this song, especially the part, "He's got his mamma's eyes/He's got his daddy's younger hands." The best songs of the night by far were the two Neil Young covers in the 2nd set, though: "Are You Ready for the Country?" and "Tonight's the Night." They sandwiched the set and really put the night together for me. It was also really nice to get a "Cream Puff War" in the House that Jerry Built. I was also introduced by some friendly folk in our crew to some new WSP folklore relating to JoJo's "Daisy Mae": The "Slippin' Into Darkness" worked well in the lead encore slot, and no matter how many times I've heard "Travelin' Light," it never seems to lose energy.
In my opinion, the best night of the run was Saturday. When we got onto the floor, the chairs were setup onstage and Sam Holt was soundchecking JB's acoustic Washburn. All I can say about what came next is: Look at the setlist! "Send Your Mind" and "C. Brown" to open. Are you kidding me? I don't know what to think of the up tempo "Mercy," but it may just be that I'm not accustomed to hearing it performed that way. "Heaven" and "Blackout Blues" were both appropriate, considering we had about a hundred empty beer cups on the rail in front of us, and would all leave the show at exactly the same time to fall in and out of bars. My father used to play the hell out of The Guess Who (on vinyl) when I was a kid, and I loved Panic for playing it for me at the Warfield.
There was also a huge double sandwich in the 2nd set- Chilly>North>Drivin'>Ride Me High>Drums (How money is Sunny?)>Drivin'>Chilly. Todd and Sunny were banging the skins in complete synchronicity while Schools was dropping bombs. JB & George were standing next to each other and jamming with grins on their faces, and JoJo was surfing the wave. When they rewound it back into Chilly and JB yelled for "cool, cool water," with the lights bathing the entire crowd in red, blue and yellow, I got drenched from flying water bottles, felt the Panic coursing through my veins and boogied my tail off. We were with the good crowd.
There were candles and purple ribbons and a full range of emotions in the house on Sunday night. When JB walked out and saw all the flowers scattered across the stage, all the candles lit and held high, he gave us a warm, throaty, "Thank ya'll very much!" I had been seeing pigeons all over the street all weekend, so I had a big smile when the "Pigeons" came. I didn't expect the "Can't Get High" at all: JB sang this one for Mikey, and 2800 people joined in. I looked around during the "Porch Song>I'm Not Alone>Travelin' Man" triptych and saw a few wet eyes. Schools wouldn't let us mourn, though. He crept into a rambunctious "Goin' Out West" to end the set. It's as if he were saying, "I miss him, too, but now it's time to dance."
"Thought Sausage>Action Man" to open the second was bone grinding, hammer and anvil rock and roll. I thought the "Disco" was unspectacular, but they dropped into a "Greta" and saved it. We were becoming a pack of rabid dogs, so Sunny gave us a good Drums to settle us down a bit. We didn't have long to rest, though, because Cecil "Peanut" Daniels came on and worked us back into a frenzy. The crown of the entire weekend was hearing Eric McFadden's otherworldly, psychedelic rendition of "Maggot Brain." I thought I'd been teleported onto another planet for about ten minutes. I really liked the pace down the homestretch, too: a brooding "Aunt Avis" into a smokin' "Red Hot Mama" (I like to watch the girls during this one!), followed by a "Pilgrims." Yes, if it feels good, we shake. At the end, Schools revved up the engine to the "Love Tractor," and when JB stepped on the gas and announced, "Daddy said I'm alright!" the whole theater took off. You couldn't get off this ride if you wanted to.
The "Can't Find My Way Home" was well placed. Then The Boys busted out a "Gradle," which I hadn't heard in a LONG time. It sounded off to me (George sounded a beat slow), and I turned to Andy and said so. He leaned over and said: "It's just a little rust. You can clean rust off." The machine might need a little axle grease, but it's still running better than anything else on the road.