Widespread Panic, Memorial Auditorium, Chattanooga, TN- 10/15
Dave Schools raised his right arm triumphantly just after throwing down a low bass bomb to bring a fiery show-opening “Imitation Leather Shoes” to a close visually demonstrating the exuberance many on and off the stage seemed to be feeling. As the band effectively conjured the melancholy of “Can’t Get High” and the grit of the “Contentment Blues” that followed, the music revealed a supremely confident new guitarist Jimmy Herring. This was clearly a much better band than I had seen in New England just three weeks before.
The brightly acoustic sound of John Bell’s Chet Atkins (a Tennessee native, by the way) model Gibson guitar sounded sweet in the cozy Chattanooga Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall during “Casa Del Grillo,” but the version was also unfortunately marred by some feedback and one full sound dropout.
The band more than recovered with a stellar reading of the disquieting “Blight” featuring keyboardist JoJo Hermann’s best solo of the night, some sweet guitar interplay between Herring and producer/year-long repeated Spread guest John Keane and appropriately menacing lyrics from Schools. While Keane did deliver the brief first solo during “Blight,” it was Herring who handled most of the guitar leads (as he would most of the night), with Keane mainly adding bulk to the rhythm, or cleverly placed subtle colorings.
A roughly twenty minute take on “Diner” featured improvised pastry lyrics from John Bell (with a particular nod given to Bear Claws) and Bell’s Atkins blending tunefully with Keane’s pedal steel (as it would during “Blue Indian” later in the show). It was during this “Diner” that I began to notice the way the band (particularly drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo “Sonny” Ortiz) was beginning to capitalize on Herring’s flourishing leads resulting in several small explosions that found the crowd roaring in response. Here lies the future energetic potential of the marriage of this legendary Athens band and this widely esteemed Athens guitarist.
As the band rumbled through “Thought Sausage,” John Bell sang of the need to “stir it in the sauce,” and they are certainly gradually stirring Herring into the sauce. Herring catapulted the band with a muscular solo during “One Armed Steve,” (with the rhythm section again effectively pouncing on Herring’s lightning quick lines) and although he struggled with some of the central riffs, and later was derailed by Hermann just as one solo was about to culminate; the band did deliver a rousing, set-closing, cover of Neil Young’s “Walk On.”
The band opened the second set with “Happy,” and it served as Herring’s low point of the night. He missed the beginning of the song, and later sounded a tad frenetic for this laid-back instrumental. However, Schools took over during a jam late in the song and steered the band toward “Pleas.” I found myself alternating between feeling a fresh joy about the new energy Herring was bringing to this Panic staple, and a lingering ache as I still listened for certain guitar parts associated with the band’s late lead guitarist (and namesake) Mike Houser (The only other time I had these mixed emotions was during the “Henry Parsons Died” in the encore segment). "Herring ripped off a spiraling solo at the end of “Pleas” which flowed smoothly into another Hermann solo around which the band framed a transition into “(Thin Air) Smells Like Mississippi.”
The band was on a roll at this point. Herring demonstrated a strong sense of the dynamics of this song as well as a comfort delivering the composed guitar lines. The group galloped through this, then hushed the crowd as Bell’s growl commanded full attention, leading Panic through a sweetly sinister take on “Smokestack Lightnin’.” This one rumbled along before settling to a whisper out of which ferocious ride through Jerry Joseph’s “North” arose (with Herring playing the central riff of The Yardbirds’ “Shapes Of Things” behind some of the choruses, an appropriate nod to a soldier-referencing song in this Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium) hitting particularly lively moments of ensemble playing on the jam that flowed out of it, as well as the instrumental that would unfold out of the ensuing drum segment.
After briefly teasing Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” the post-drums jam that felt like it was building to something explosive seemed more to dissipate into “Blue Indian.” While “Heroes” was another song appropriate for the Memorial Auditorium (“these are the days for heroes” was sung with particular gusto by Bell), and “Rebirtha” had a solid groove the rest of the show was pretty anticlimactic until a landmark version of the multi-sectioned “Good People” (from this year’s Earth To America) brought the set to a rousing conclusion.
These were the last southeast WSP shows until they return to Atlanta for their two night Philips Arena New Year’s stand. Perhaps this is why the band offered a generous encore of Spread classics “Henry Parsons Died” (Houser’s shadow is still felt on this one) and a moving reading of “Nobody’s Loss” which calmed the audience as we all prepared to return to the real world.