Widespread Panic, Agganis Arena, Boston 4/12
I realized, while locating my seat for tonight's Cajun-crazy epic, it had been a solid three and a half years since my last full on Panic experience. I couldn't even remember the date the musical landscape, both within the jamband scene and outside had changed so much and I needed Everyday Companion to remind me that it was November 8, 2001 at Boston's Orpheum Theater.
Panic played a firecracker of a show that night, and even before I started going over the set list again, I recalled a ripping, second set "Blight," a chewy "Maggot Brain" from the first, and a simply narsty "Chilly Water" with a drums segment in between. Muddy Waters’ raunchy "Red Beans" was the second set closer that night, and remembering that inspired me to locate the song for iPod consumption man, did it put me in the right mood on a shitty day, as most Muddy is able to do. As the cosmos would have it, I’d get a return on my "Red Beans" investment this night, as Panic would dust the sucker off, along with "Ribs and Whiskey," for a two song encore. Getting ahead of myself, however.
It sure didn’t feel like it had been 29 months: I had been up with the side projects the Stockholm Syndrome tour was an especially compelling experience and the frequency of Panic appearances in my disc changer and on the iPod were at an all time high. It helped that I had also consumed the three free shows from March in Atlanta offered through spanking new Panic downloads program. I had those on rotation, too, and a smile creases my lips every time I replay that first "Holden Oversoul" back the crowd’s palpable reaction, the loaded, and necessarily audacious statement being made by George McConnell playing the first notes of a song that’s as associated with the late Michael Houser as "Wharf Rat" is with Jerry Garcia.
Such unfailing and comfortable familiarity with Panic, despite a dearth of actual Panic in such a long period, must be a testament to what they do, then, which sounds like a soapbox defense of anyone’s favorite band and "it’s all about the music, man," but a discerning listener knows that the musical anomaly of Widespread Panic might be the last true stronghold of ageless "special" our scene currently manages. Though a case could certainly be made for the heyday Aquarium Rescue Unit, the Phil Lesh Quintet (does that count, given its obvious association with "first generation?") and any project with which Warren Haynes, Steve Kimock or Col. Bruce Hampton is involved, Panic is certainly the most musical the most Zambi — band the jam scene has ever produced from its amorphously grouped "second" and "third" generations, and then still I feel filthy for the inadvertent attempt to label, because for Panic, "jamband" still feels a little unfair. Though appropriate, it’s a little off the mark. It’s a tunes-first band with rich improvisational chops a song catalog largely unrivaled anywhere in the scene — wholly of the South, but the product yielded from a nearly exact intersection of the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead, with a generous helping of Crescent City R&B and the bayou and backroads blues mixed in.
With all that in place, Panic played a gritty, wholly enjoyable "B+" this night in Boston, and it was kept rather unfairly from an even better go-round because of one intangible you just never really believe can be a factor any good band can play anywhere and still connect, at least on a base level, right? nor is really ever worth commenting on in a review, until you experience it happening: The Venue.
If you’ll excuse a momentary burst of esoterica, the Agganis Arena, or Boston University’s 7200-seat hockey baby that opened for business in January and began hosting concerts shortly thereafter, is as needed a void-filler in Boston’s concert market as anything that’s opened for live music here in the past five years. The sound is decent, if far from mind-blowing, and the seats are comfortable and spacious. Its newness might be the problem: Agganis is so squeaky clean and ferociously determined to remain that way, I halfway felt I’d have to be dunked in antiseptic and then passed through an airlock in between trips to my seat. With all the lights on, the place, past the great history lesson photo galleries of B.U.‘s proudest athletes, has all the character of a gigantic operating room. Not that this, either, is a bad thing, but the stink that was raised in this place not one week earlier short version: tons of high school heads, the new gooey-eyed warriors of Abercrombie nation, show up, drunk and wasted as fuck, to do their thing with O.A.R. on April 7, people puke and get arrested and get taken to hospitals, management has a fit, "Kids do that at concerts? Well, we never!" was enough for the People in Charge to discontinue the selling of beer and liquor of any kind at the concession stands.
And that’s to say nothing of the police-state hordes, hordes of security people — and yeah they’re just doing their job and I’ll support that forever, but Christ and their somewhat futile attempts to contain the dancing, grooving and, soon enough into the show, intoxicating aroma of kind that quickly overpowered the smells of disinfectant and clean. In the middle of the second set, they carted a young woman out from the third-row floor spot, so conspicuously that JB threw an irritated glance toward the fracas. There were also legions of them up in the luxury boxes, scoping the crowd from above in command-center type surveillance posts, and occasionally descending, like locusts, upon the taper section back behind the soundboard don’t know that I’ve ever seen so much uncalled for taper harassment. It was all stifling enough to hurt the good vibes coming from the stage I halfway felt the urge, at one point, to run down the street to Boston’s most beguiling music temple, the Paradise Rock Club, just to unwind from the Big Brother tension.
It was enough of a thing to be bothersome, but not enough to wholly detract. The band itself regaled by serving up its most ambitious set list yet of the comeback tour, creating sections of individual, self-contained rocking in the first set (no clear identity, just jumpy fun) and a continuous stream of funky, Cajun boogie jams in the second that traversed three moods and/or tones: greasy country funk, the kind of hard-driving, heavily percussive, all-segued rawk catharses at which Panic excels, and finally, dirty, aggressive blues.
It was a business-first show banter and salutations were kept at an extreme minimum until some hilarious musings and in-song raps toward the end of the second set and everything was on: raspy soul and some heavier-than-usual-shredding from JB, heavy, heavy thunder from Schools, a balance of snaking Hammond and trippy piano from JoJo, and hair-standing demonstrations from the most locked in, lots-of-arms-but-one-weapon drums and percussion chassis since the original Santana band and also Trucks, Quinones and Johanson, in the form of Todd Nance and Sunny Ortiz (the latter of whom sported a Red Sox jersey, and led to a chuckle-worthy epiphany, upon recognition of whose jersey replica it was, that Big Papi would indeed likely dig Panic).
Enhanced by Panic’s most professionally suped-up lights display ever, the show’s frissons kept coming: a whip-smart "Papa Legba," a bopping "Who Do You Belong To," commanding versions of "Wondering" and "Diner," a real bone-chiller of an intro to War’s "Slippin’ Into Darkness" to kick off set two, a crushingly brilliant run of "Surprise Valley > Hatfield > drums > Surprise Valley > Chilly Water" (during which, in "Hatfield," JB started rapping something to the effect of "playing kitty cat games, breaking all of mama’s best pots") and then, just as it seemed "Chilly" would close things up, a last minute coda into deep, dank swamp-blues territory, marked by funk-laden entreaties into Robert Johnson’s "Me and the Devil Blues," the closing "All Time Low," and between them, the night’s biggest surprise: Junior Kimbrough’s bruising "You Better Run," before which J.B. hilariously announced "This song is about JoJo’s fourth grade teacher." A bit of Panic-style comic relief for an "is it raunchy-or-is-it-frightening?" song with a chorus that goes "you don’t have to rape me, cause I love you."
George McConnell is still a wild card here, although there likely isn’t anyone else who could inject himself this much and this deeply into Panic’s framework in such a (still) short period. The inclination remains, as it will always be, to look to "the Mikey area" onstage when the band begins one of its patented, pre-soar build-ups, and when George doesn’t deliver The Business cause it’s simply not always his style (his lack of uptake clipped tonight’s "Diner" a little too soon, for example), he can be forgivably disappointing.
He’s such a spicy, dexterous player, though, and since getting over a repetitive inclination toward momentum-killing, Hendrixian bursts of sound he’s opening up and marinating his solos way more often than he used to — he’s finding himself in the band’s pocket (and the band, also, supportively in his) more and more often. He made up for muddling the end of "Darkness" by ripping a scorcher so fierce in the middle of "Let’s Get Down to Business" it was sure to leave love stains all over the room.
Agganis' management will have to see about this McConnell, in other words, and that's how we know he's a keeper.