Widespread Panic, Three Rivers Music Festival, Columbia, SC- 4/24
"Good morning everybody." These were the first words out of John Bell's mouth as Widespread Panic prepared to launch into "Little Kin" during a rare early evening concert on the last day of Columbia's annual weekend music festival. The show started at 5:30pm on the Sunday after Panic's two night run at Walnut Creek in Raleigh, NC and JB's words reflected how the first set started out, a little tired and lacking in energy.
During the first four songs "Little Kin", "Who Do You Belong To?", "Wondering", and "Blackout Blues" the band sounded tight if a bit lethargic. While the band made no mistakes during these songs, they didn't make even the slightest bit of effort in improvising on any of the themes. This was especially surprising during "Wondering" considering the outstanding 14-minute version they played at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta one month earlier. "Junior" came next and although it sounded like they were attempting to pick it up, it never really clicked into place like it normally does. Keyboardist Jojo Hermann and bassist David Schools often take this song to the next level through a call and response between their respective instruments, but this never happened. Instead guitarist George McConnell led the charge with a rocking solo and then the song was over. Up to this point there was very little interplay between the band members.
"I'm Not Alone" followed and seemed to create a spark with its emotional lyrics and groove. McConnell played the main guitar line flawlessly with the appropriate accents and feeling and JB's vocals were fantastic. This song has definitely taken on a new meaning considering all that has happened over the last 3 years with the band and it seemed to have woken them out of their Walnut Creek hangover. This was even more evident in "Pleas" which served as the highlight of the first set. "Pleas" showcased everything that was missing in the first half of the set, great communication between the band and an intense improvisational section. The band then carried this over into the brand new song "Cows Come Home." Like most Panic songs over the years this song keeps building each time they play it until it finally takes on its ultimate form. It will be fun to watch this one grow considering it is already a well-defined song. As always the set closing "Henry Parsons Died" was upbeat and ended the set on a promising note.
Fortunately, the energy that the band built during the second half of set one somehow multiplied during the set break and resulted in an outstanding second set. Perhaps the best of the "new" batch of Panic songs "Old Neighborhood" opened the second half of the concert and it was a real treat to hear. It was a great song choice for a show in Columbia, SC because of the fact that the band played there many times during their formative years.
Although the band has outgrown the bars and clubs that they use to play in, they still have "memories from the old neighborhood." Musically the band seemed much more awake and in tune to one another. Schools was on fire with his bass and he displayed his tremendous talent and command of his instrument. Over the years Schools has grown and developed into one of the best bass players in the world on the same level as Les Claypool, Victor Wooten, and Oteil Burbridge. This was never more evident than during "Weight of the World." Schools played some sort of double time, multiple note bass line during the song that I had never noticed him playing before.
"Weight of the World" is a fast paced song to begin with, but what Schools was doing was out of this world, while at the same time still in perfect context with what everyone else was playing. Just hearing this bass line was one of the highpoints of the show, pure musical brilliance.
The very well played "Weight of the World" was followed by a solid rendition of a new Jojo song entitled "Good People." Just like "Cows Come Home" this is another brand new song that is going to grow and change over the coming years and judging by the good time Jojo lyrics of the song it could develop into a crowd favorite. The jam at the end of "Good People" was extended and included some great interplay between McConnell and Schools. McConnell started playing some new melody and Schools picked up on it almost immediately and the entire band played around with it for a couple of minutes, as this jam dissolved into beautiful nothingness the band paused for a second and jumped right into "Proving Ground" which has developed into a great improvisation vehicle for the band over the years. A great example of this was the "Proving Ground" from Milwaukee on 4/5/05, where the band made a giant "Proving Ground" sandwich during the opening set. Similarly, the Columbia "Proving Ground" built itself up to a climax after the verses and choruses were finished and a slightly up-tempo version of "Don't Wanna Lose You" manifested. Although this "Don't Wanna Lose You" was a little bit faster than the one on the album it was just as entertaining because of JB's bluesy slide guitar and Jojo's woozy vocals. As the band jammed they continued to take the song to a higher level until it reached a noisy and frenzied climax and then subtlety dropped right back into "Proving Ground."
The familiar opening to "Rebirtha" came next. Once again the energy level was very high for this song and JB belted out the vocals and Schools slapped the funky groove. The happy southern crowd boogied and sang along to the classic Panic baseball song as the breeze blew through the large trees behind and around the stage. Although this concert wasn't held in a great old theatre like many of the bands stops along the tour, the large hillside in a park just blocks away from downtown Columbia felt just fine.
After finishing up "Rebirtha" Schools started up a thumping bass line that led the band into Robert Johnson's "Stop Breakin' Down." John Bell's squeaky vocals and slippery slide guitar was the perfect formula to pay tribute to this blues masterwork. After working the crowd into a blues trance the band then chilled things out a bit with "Christmas Katie."
What came next was hands down the best song and performance of the entire concert, "Big Wooly Mammoth." From beginning to end this "Big Wooly" was extremely well played with tons of interplay between Schools and Jojo, while drummer Todd Nance pumped out the beat and percussionist Sonny Ortiz accented everything perfectly. Jojo delivered the lyrics like man possessed by annunciating his vocals with determination and feeling and even changing some lyrics to make his point. "Sometimes I feel like and evolutionary reject/Living in this fucked up world!" Jojo also took an extra long pause before and after delivering the lines that always result in some interesting interaction between the band and the audience. A long blues keyboard jam built up the anticipation, then the rushed and excited lyrics, "Somebody throw me a fire!!", hundreds of lighters fly through the air as the band ducks for cover, then another bluesy keyboard jam, and finally the lyrics, "So we can burn this city down." The songs bouncy beat and funky groove seems to always make the audience dance a little bit faster and a little be harder. After the band finished the last chorus and brought the song to a
finale the show was over. Although it was a great second set a lot of people seemed to be surprised that the show was over. This was probably because of the early start time and thus the early finish time for each set. Most Panic fans are used to concerts that start about the same time this one finished and I believe this was a little disorienting for the thousands in attendance.
After a few minutes the band came back on and played "This Part of Town" and the perpetually upbeat "Ain't Life Grand." "This Part of Town" was a little weird to hear because it was formally song by Michael Houser, but it was a nice cool down after the raging second set. "Ain't Life Grand" served as the final goodbye song of the evening and was very well done, except for the fact the John Bell had some technical difficulties with his mandolin, thus making his strumming inaudible. Overall it was a solid Panic concert that included an outstanding second set. It was good to see the boys back on stage with great promise for the future.