Widespread Panic, the Orpheum Theatre, June 20
By Jeff Weiss
(photos by Timothy Norris)
Sometimes, I think music critics hate jam bands for the jokes. After all, on that endless litany of items capable of inspiring comedic rancor, nothing is easier to mock than hippies, save for maybe George Bush, nu-Metal and/or Coldplay. It doesn’t exactly help matters either when the moment that you park in the lot next door to the Orpheum, you’re treated to the spectacle of a group of the heady set inhaling enough nitrous oxide to keep the dentists of Southern California in stock for the next six months.
Inside, things don’t improve much, at least not initially. See, few bands on earth get more people dancing than Widespread Panic. It’s sort of weird. Of course, this would be totally fine were it not for the inescapable reality that hippies are the worst dancers on earth—bar none. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Soul Train candidate myself, but watching a couple thousand ecstatic, flailing, gumby-limbed members of the white dreadlock set had me half-believing in my chances of joining the Rocksteady Crew. With a step back and a look of bemused detachment, you’re liable to think that you’re trapped in that Chappelle’s Show skit where John Mayer plays the guitar to the delight of a rhythmless horde of twisting white people. But hippies don’t do the twist. They sort of gyrate with this bizarre, off-kilter lurch lost somewhere between the mating dance of a Chinese Heavenly Crane and Elaine Benes’ spastic “dry heave set to music” from Seinfeld. Unfortunately, the heaving isn’t always dry, at least judging from the guy in the front of me who vomited out three hunks of weed brownie onto the floor during the second set of Friday night’s Widespread Panic show.
So yeah, I get it, nothing’s less cool than admitting to liking jam bands, especially the in the year 2008 when there aren’t many “jam” bands left, And out of the wreckage, Panic remain standing, the stalwarts, 22 years in the game, still one of the biggest draws in music. Of course, you never hear about them unless it’s in conjunction with jokes about hippies, which brings me back to my first point that critics hate jam bands. There are a variety of reasons for this, some legit (self-indulgence, usually shitty lyrics, drum solos) and others that stem from a general critical loathing of goofy sincerity, patchouli, and drugs.
Of course, the drugs definitely help. I’m sure it’s possible to enjoy a jam band show sober but I wouldn’t recommend it. In the lobby, a group of benevolent seeming souls sat under a banner that read: The Gateway, Clean and Sober Widespread Panic Fans. More power to them I guess, but that’s not an idea I can safely endorse. There’s too much time to think. I’m pretty sure that during one of Jimmy Herring’s guitar solos Friday night, I could’ve read Ulysses. But in the proper frame of mind, I really like Widespread Panic and I’m totally okay with admitting that. Maybe I’m not about to go about and buy any of their nine studio albums or seven official live albums, but if you’re trying hard enough, it’s damned impossible not to enjoy a Panic show. After all, happiness is a rare commodity in Los Angeles, and even the most dedicated cynics ought to like something about any band capable of eliciting that much joy from their audience.
Musically, you won’t find a much tighter working unit. In a way, they remind me of the jam band equivalent of modern day Wilco: slick, professional and filled with a surfeit of dazzling stoner guitar solos. Except instead of the more avant-garde leaning Nels Cline, Panic wrangled their own ax-legend in Jimmy Herring, formerly of the late-period Allman Brothers and The Dead. You have to be pretty great to make a living filling in for three different seminal dead guitarists and Herring doesn’t disappoint. He’s not showy or flashy, just good, the world’s oldest seeming 46-year old with his white ponytail, Levi’s and tucked-in flannel shirt making him look more akin to an organic juice magnate than guitar legend. But in full volume, the guy sounds like what kids think they’re doing when they rock out at Guitar Hero.
Despite looking eerily like debauched 19th Century President Franklin Pierce, lead Panic singer/guitarist John Bell makes for a solid front-man with a flexible range that sounds at times a whole lot like Jerry Garcia and at others, particularly on fan favorite, “Whiskey and Ribs,” he descends capably into believably bluesy lament. Sonically, the band doesn’t re-invent the wheel and may lack the experimental sheen to make them critically respectable, but they know to rock and sometimes on a Friday night, that’s really all that you want. Their shows have a collegial geniality to them that you practically never find in indie rock, there’s no arch irony, no pretension, just bluesy Southern Comfort rock n’ roll. Plus, with the music industry in perpetual chaos, there’s something to be said about a group that can get the same people to see them three consecutive nights. So what if the shows are a little funny, it’s more important that they’re fun.