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Published: 2003/11/09
by Mike Greenhaus

Widespread Panic, Madison Square Garden, NYC- 10/31 & 11/1

Widespread Panic are jam-rock's punks. Sure their music is long, flowing, and packed with percussion- anathema to punkers of present and yore but carrying the back-to-the-basics torch ignited by seventies punk rock, Widespread Panic strip their sound down to its rock and roll ingredients. Though their music is decisively southern-rock, their attitude is pumped-up, punk minimalism. So, it makes perfect sense that the Georgia sextet offered the Ramones as their Halloween cover candy.

Two months before their self-imposed hiatus, the Georgia sextet proved their musical might years ago, and used Madison Square Garden to throw one final Northeast gala. Doubling as New York City's defacto Halloween party, Widespread Panic drew their largest northeast crowd to date during their four-set, two night midtown stand. With longtime collaborators Dirty Dozen Brass Band opening, Widespread Panic oozed an aura of confidence, quickly overcoming any apprehensions concerning their first New York area arena shows. A far cry from the intimate Manhattan theaters Widespread Panic traditionally favor, Madison Square Garden amplified the group's sound quite nicely. While arena rock often muddles musicians' ethos, the extra air magnified Widespread Panic's rock and roll energy – and also hinted at how a hiatus could help the band age more gracefully.

Draped in an assortment of capes, clokes, and caps, Widespread Panic used Halloween to add a bit of spectacle to their rock and roll show, reserving Saturday for tackling some of their more difficult fan-favorites. At present, without Michael Houser's fluid, stable guitar lines to lead Panic's consciously cluttered jams, Panic has opted to adopt a three-man front line akin to the Other Ones. With lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist John Bell acting as the group's front man, and young, southern axe man George McConnell taking on a Jimmy Herring-like ringer role, bassist Dave School is left as the group's psychedelic pastor.

The group particularly spotlighted their soul searching during a six song, punk rock medley that closed out their first set. Kicking off with a cover of Lou Reed's "Vicious," the group dipped a bit deeper into punk with a collection of Ramones staples including, "Pet Cemetery," "Beat on the Brat," and "I Want to Be Sedated." With McConnell, Schools, and Bell trading off lead vocals, Panic seemed to perfect the Ramones disjointed harmonies, while the group's pounding riffs tapped into punk's spine. Even as eighteen thousand Widespread Panic enthusiasts did the jam-band bounce- and-bobble to punk tunes, there was no sense of irony in the air. Like the Ramones, Widespread Panic eat rock and roll for dinner and save chord progression experiments for a bedtime snack.

Closing their first set with the Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime," Widespread Panic slowly overtook their arena summit. Playing a more solo heavy, electric lead guitar than Houser, McConnell's style is quite conducive to arenas. Letting each note radiate throughout the Garden's rafter beams, McConnell helped turn Panic's performance into a real arena rock and roll show, full of long, lingering solos. With Bell narrating, the group jam packed their set list with songs from throughout their canon, including the live staple segue "Chilly Water> Imitation Leather Shoes> Chilly Water." At times their renditions were shaky, as Bell's grainy voice crackled in his microphone and McConnell's guitar lines were lost somewhere around the basketball court's scoreboard. But the sextet served up an impressive trick or treat spectacle, including The Rocky Horror Picture Show favorite "The Time Warp."

Widespread Panic's set designers also utilized their added space by employing an enlarged video screen to project vintage Dukes of Hazard footage throughout the two evenings. Though a nice visual addition to songs largely concerning travel and life on the road, the video screen distracted from Panic's light show, often plagued by technical difficulties. More than once, the computer broadcast video footage stalled, mistakenly projecting the world's most famous Windows desktop.

But the evening did prove full of entertainment, including a non-stop second set sandwiched around "Action Man," "Arlene," and a heavy "Henry Parsons Died." Adding even more holiday flair, the Dirty Dozen Brass band's horn section joined in for a long medley of "Love Is The Drug, "Arlene," "Coconut," and "The Time Warp," adding a bit of a funk spice to Panic's rock and roll stew. "Coconut" was an especially grand jam, with Panic's two-man percussion teams dropping musical bombs with the tap of a bongo. While at times the group seemed stuck in the same groove the bathroom lines were a bit long in the middle of their repetitious dance Widespread Panic proved their arena might. Approximately eighty percent full, a healthy attendance record for such a large venue, Widespread Panic threw New York's biggest house party, swallowing any musical glitches in a gulp of beer. Capping off the evening with two excellent choices, the ballad "City of Dreams" and their trademark "Ain't Life Grand," Widespread Panic started to pickup steam just as they drew their curtain.

Standing in stark contrast to their opening night, Widespread Panic's Saturday night show was plain and musically precise. Adding longtime mid-set epics to their set list like "Travelin Light" and "Lawyers, Guns, And Money," returning after three years of retirement, Widespread Panic used their extra night to celebrate their longtime fans, many of whom traveled far beyond the five boroughs to celebrate the holiday festivities. Stacking their show with many of their newer compositions from Ball, Widespread Panic stuck to the songs they knew worked right, and with great success. Having nursed tracks like "Fishing" from birth, McConnell seemed comfortable in his role as lead guitarist, engaging the crowd and whipping his band mates into shape. Schools' bass lead such chestnuts as "Driving Song" and "Climb to Safety," while percussionists Todd Nance and Sunny Oritz shined during a lengthy, second set percussion workout.

Yet the evening's most welcome surprise came with the addition of the full Dirty Dozen Brass at the second set's start. Inviting up the entire sextet, including their ultra talented drummer Terence Higgins and guitarist Jamie McLean, the Dirty Dozen helped fill out Widespread Panic's sound with elements of funk and New Orleans soul. Laying a solid, horn heavy groove, anchored by Schools, the musicians, now a true bakers dozen, filed into formation. Covers of "On Broadway" and Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" melted into the band's own "Christmas Katie" and "Weight of the World." Their union provided the weekend's most enjoyable moments partially because it forced Widespread Panic to try something new, a complaint some audience members cited after night one. A few gigs away from a long musical break, the members of Widespread Panic are obviously searching for new variations on their rock and roll formula. Dirty Dozen Brass band shuffles Widespread Panic's deck in an original and comfortable way.

Closing their second set with another extensive medley: "Ride Me High," "Surprise Valley," "I'm Not Alone," "Thin Air (Smells Like Mississippi)" and "Love Tractor," Widespread Panic were clearly enjoying their moment of arena fame. Often used as a mid-set showcase, longtime fan favorite "Space Wrangler" was cut and pasted into the weekend's exclamation mark spot. While many jam-bands have branched into techno, fusion, and bluegrass to vary their stagnant sounds, Widespread Panic seems determined to keep their trademark formula intact, albeit with a few additional horns here and there. But like the Ramones, Widespread Panic's show is more about energy than precision, made clear by the group's disheveled, yet driven moments of improvisation. Though they will most likely hiatus to reinvigorate themselves, Widespread Panic already hinted at how they still offer subtle surprises.

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