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Published: 2005/05/12
by Tom Baker

Widespread Panic, Walnut Creek Amphitheater, Raleigh, NC – 4/22 & 23

When Widespread Panic left the stage at Atlanta's Philips Arena in the early
hours of January 1st, 2004, it was unknown just when or in what state they
would return. When reports surfaced that band members scarcely saw each
other during the ensuing fifteen months, choosing either to immerse
themselves in new projects (like Dave Schools' Stockholm Syndrome and JoJo
Hermann's solo album) or to drop out of public view almost altogether (a la
John Bell), it wasn't exactly what a lot of fans wanted to hear-the band was
essentially in stasis for over a year, and it's safe to say that while their
return was eagerly awaited, most fervently hoped the band would not be
picking up exactly where it left off, gamely soldiering on after the loss of
an integral player and dear friend but struggling with crucial issues of
chemistry and repertoire.

The two-night stand at Raleigh's Walnut Creek Amphitheater seemed an ideal
convergence of events on paper: several shows in, Widespread seemed a good
bet to have its tour legs back at the site of memorable shows past. The
hiatus-ending Atlanta Fox Theater shows were generally solid under the rust
but heavily freighted with pent-up expectation, making it next to impossible
to separate honest appraisal from simple giddiness at the band's return.
The three-night stand at Radio City Music Hall was well-received and sounded
good on tape, but even the best recording doesn't tell the whole story.
Raleigh seemed the best chance I had, for better or worse, to assess the
current model of Widespread Panic, so I signed on for the four hundred mile
drive northeast from Atlanta and found myself in the Walnut Creek lot just
as the opening notes of "Arleen" started riding out of the clear spring
evening sky. In between that moment and night two's exuberant closer
"Conrad," I saw a band well on track again, recommitted and eager to revisit
nearly every significant chapter of its long history and start writing new
ones as well, not just by playing with fresh material ("You Should Be Glad,"
a cover of the Beatles' "Run For Your Life") but also by finding new spaces
to explore on even well-traveled roads like "Fishwater" and "Give." It was
a bountiful, heartening, nearly overflowing performance, equally measured
with both grit and polish, weathered and craggily beautiful, marked with
seemingly a half-dozen great moments for each of the few false starts and
dead ends.

Even if guitarist George McConnell's reading of "Surprise Valley," the
benchmark by which many still compare McConnell to the late Michael Houser,
still comes across slightly on the mechanical side, his sound is now
noticeably more ingrained into the band and his rapport with the other
members clearly much deeper, regardless of how the year-plus break was
spent. The first night's centerpiece, the ambitious run of "Chilly Water"
into "Driving Song" into "You Should Be Glad" and back out, might not have
been as thematically or sonically seamless as the band intended-the parts
seemed to unfold more awkwardly than organically, and they definitely didn't
stick the landing back into "Driving Song"—but the willingness to try spoke
loudly enough. Other first night highlights included an atypically riveting
exploration of the heretofore undercooked "Bust It Big" and the ocean-space
jam out of "Nebulous" into a fierce, roaring "Mercy."

The second night's opener, "Give," is usually a straightforward, almost
radio-length rocker, but here it rumbled for more than eight minutes before
flowing into a lustily-approved cover of David Bromberg's "Sharon." And the
unearthing of the rarely-played gems "Goin' Out West," "Casa Del Grillo,"
and especially "The Last Straw" found Panic in near-classic mode—the
ferocious triple-threat churn of bassist Schools, drummer Todd Nance and
percussionist Sunny Ortiz creating a pulsating space for the interplay of
Bell's and McConnell's guitars to spar with Hermann's dirty-blues keyboards.

Far more turned out for these performances than the band's last turn in
Raleigh two years earlier, and the band has entered the home stretch of its
reunion spring tour with its familiar gravitational pull waxing once again.
It's fitting, then, that Widespread Panic took the stage both nights wearing
sunglasses – they might have been shielding themselves from the glare of
sunset and, at the same time, looking head on at a still-bright future.

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