Widespread Panic, Kiva Auditorium, Albuquerque, NM- 10/25
“That was a real heavy set,” I told Widespread Panic drummer Todd Nance backstage at the Kiva Auditorium in Albuquerque. “When it’s an evil day, it’s gonna be an evil night,” he replied with an impish smile. Frontman John Bell stepped in with, “Yeah, but, how evil could any set with Pilgrims’ in it be?”
The Athens, GA sextet had brought enough sound and lighting equipment into the Auditorium to fill a sports arena. In fact, I would be deaf in one ear for the next two-and-a-half days, but rarely have I felt such misery was purchased at the right price. The Kiva is normally the kind of room you see small, quiet acts in intimate might be the right word.
I was comparing “show poker” notes with a nice couple from Alabama before the band took the stage. He was convinced the opener would be “Disco,” she was rooting for “Let’s Get Down Down to Business.” Perhaps foolishly, my money was on “Bowlegged.” It turned out to be “Good People,” a solid newer song but not exactly the barnburner we were hoping for. The whole first set seemed steeped with a gloomy thoughtfulness, actually, the kind we in the high desert are used to wallowing in, but not necessarily at a Panic show.
Halfway through the first set, which included almost somber readings of “Chainsaw City” and “May Your Glass Be Filled,” during a rare, acoustic “Mercy,” I began to wonder if we’d ever “Get Down to Business.” Then, the mood shifted as JB activated the way-back machine for Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” followed by a ripping “Thought Sausage,” the uptempo fIREHOSE number “Sometimes,” and a thick “Proving Ground” closer I secretly hoped pointed toward an amazing second set. Spirits were high at set break, as one might expect, and we all finished our respective poisons and scurried back to our seats, which, I thought, we’d been spending an inordinate amount of time in so far.
Second set was the answer to our prayers an endless “field of arrows” when you see it on paper, and it was every bit as great as you might hope. “Who Do You Belong To?” gave way to a “Chilly > Bust It > Chilly” sandwich and now the room was full of the smiling, foot-stomping, fist-waving groovers I suspected we all could be if given the chance. It wasn’t long before the biofeedback loop between the band and the fans had churned the ether into a pulsing, frothy vibe, which boiled over in crescendo after crescendo. The aforementioned “Everyday” gem “Pilgrims” segued into an unbelievable “Blight,” which bassist Dave Schools performed at an almost superhuman level especially considering, as I found out later, that he was suffering from a raging flu.
During the whole show, the ailing Schools and guitarist George McConnell took every opportunity to go off. At one point during a first set solo (though neither George nor I could later recall during exactly which song possibly “Rebirtha”), McConnell put so many strings in and out of tune the rest of the band was actually giving him a collective “what the f$#k?” look. He just smiled and kept on playing. Schools would run his whole hand down the six strings of his monolithic bass guitar like he was playing bottleneck slide. Now it was Sonny and Todd’s turn.
“Drums” became a haunting, luxuriant “Walk On Guilded Splinters” worthy of closing the show, but no, Sonny launches back into “Drums!” It’s unheard of! A “Drums” sandwich who’d have thought? The Spreadheads pushing their way toward the front seemed to be dancing with the security guards! What’s more, the security guards seemed to be enjoying it. It was like a particularly rowdy tent revival, with as much sex as salvation in the atmosphere.
Now JB with a blistering, positively epic version of “Diner.” I haven’t had a chance to download the show and listen to it in the cold light of reason, but at the time, it seemed like the loudest, longest, rockinest version of “Diner” ever. The JB rap in the middle was especially long, and I remember wondering briefly if he’d had an extraordinary diner experience somewhere in Albuquerque that day. I could name a few likely suspects. Second set closed with the old stand-by “Rock,” and we were ready to collectively collapse, but stayed up and cheered for the encore. I don’t know much about the first encore, “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” and Everyday Companion informs me it was only the second time ever played, so I can hardly be faulted for my ignorance. Possibly a cover from the Reverend Gary Davis, by way of Bob Dylan/The Band, it was a nice, smooth way to ease us back into inevitable reality. I’ve always dug their arrangement of the Buffalo Springfield classic “Mr. Soul,” and couldn’t have chosen a better song to end the show on (though I wish it had occurred to me when I was betting on “show poker” beforehand).
It was, by all accounts, one of the loudest shows ever. You know when you overdrive a speaker and the sound starts clipping, then distorting? Some of the high notes Jojo was hitting in the keyboard solos actually made my ear do that. I was close enough to the stage I was tingling all over from what must have been a subwoofer body massage. My feet hurt from dancing and I was drenched with sweat. Much like the other activity one can regularly engage in which gets one hot, sweaty, exhausted and, sometimes, bruised and sore, this rock and roll experience left me panting and spent, and I can hardly wait for it to happen again as long as it’s not right this second.
I lost my shirt in “show poker,” but that may have been the last thing on my mind after the fire-and-brimstone spectacle I’d just witnessed. Widespread Panic delivered an exceptionally dark, aggressive set perfectly suited to the unforgiving New Mexico desert. We were their playthings, like children, thrilled, enrapt in a ghost story, giggling, howling, shrieking with glee. Mission accomplished, rosy-cheeked churchgoers limped toward the exits, full to bursting with the holy spirit. I came away feeling that Widespread Panic just might be the best psychedelic rock band going.