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Widespread Panic, June 27, 2010 @ Red Rocks
Widespread Panic holds the record for the most sold out shows at Red Rocks Amphitheater at 35. That’s more than Phish, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, U2 or even Julio Iglesias. All those sell-outs by a band that’s hardly a household name and one that gets only marginal airplay on the radio. (But does that really matter anymore?) Obviously they have a loyal following and because they keep packing my favorite venue, I figured it was about time to see what the frenzy was all about.
They played their 33rd, 34th and 35th sold out concerts on consecutive days in late June this year and I went to the third of those, a Sunday afternoon gig. Given the three day stay, many fans moved in for the weekend. The vibe in the parking lots was clearly Grateful Deadish, although I didn’t see a Mall anywhere which was too bad because I’m all out of Patchouli Oil. The crowd was mostly in their 20s and 30s.
Panic has garnered its loyal following by following the jam band formula. It seems kind of ironic to even refer to a “jam band formula” because bands of the jam genre are famous for making it up as they go along, both in terms of the songs they play and how they play them, especially with their emphasis on improvisation. But Panic does many things that other bands in its category have done. Obviously, they jam. They leave plenty of room in their songs for extended solos and they’re not afraid to change the tunes around from time to time or from night to night. They maintain an extensive repertoire of both original songs and tasty covers. Because of the vast number of tunes in their book, they can do things like play three consecutive nights at Red Rocks, totaling 8 or 9 hours and not repeat a song.
They have other things in common with their jam brethren. They like to play. Sunday afternoon at the Rocks, they played for a little over an hour, took a break and came back for a two hour second set. They also welcome other players to the stage to make some other flavors of jam. Sunday they were joined by guitarist Eric McFadden and DJ Logic. Another jam band classic move is to allow taping of their shows. In an age when record companies (do they matter anymore?) still try to punish people for trading music, Panic (and others) actively encourage taping and trading of their shows.
The music is mainly rock and roll. Hints of the blues and a little jazz appear now and then, but mainly these guys stick to rock. The first set concentrated mainly on songs with only occasional stretching out for extended solos. Because I’m not real familiar with the band’s book, it was a little like going to a party where I didn’t know anybody. It was a fun vibe, but not much was familiar. The band would launch a song and twitters of recognition would run through the crowd, but I just had to smile and nod. “Blight” was a highlight with a nice laid back jam in the middle.
The Allman Brothers seem like a good point of comparison because they’re both from Georgia and they both cook in the jam kitchen:
Guitars: Allman Brothers: This, of course, is the Brothers’ strong point. Duane Allman and Dickie Betts practically patented the twin lead guitar sound. Their improvisation and slide work set new standards in the rock world in the early 70s. The current guitar duo of Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks is unquestionably the best lineup since the first one. (We’ll leave the question of whether they are even better than the originals for another day). Both Haynes and Trucks are skilled improvisers and each, particularly Trucks, has his own distinctive voice. They’re both capable of driving the band to heights of emotional intensity.
Panic: WSP’s lead guitarist is Jimmy Herring. Like Haynes and Trucks, he came late to the band, arriving only in 2006. Like Trucks, he only plays, doesn’t sing. He struck me at first as a bit of a technician; someone who just played fast, but without emotion. But after listening for awhile, I could hear that he can coax multiple sounds out of his axe, he’s not always trying to play as fast as possible, but will work on a melodic solo. Panic’s other guitarist is John Bell who also handles most of the lead vocals. Bell generally sticks to rhythm and rarely solos. I think I heard an arranged twin guitar part once.
Vocals: First off, jam bands are notorious for weak vocals. That’s just not the emphasis. Vocal harmonies are rare. You want that: go find a pop band.
Allman Brothers: The Brothers have two main vocalists, Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes. Allman is now in his sixties and his vocals have been somewhat inconsistent over the last few years (a problem that won’t be helped, at least in the short term, by his recent liver transplant, but maybe in the long run…). In 2009 at Red Rocks, he sounded good, but in prior years he was a little shaky. Warren Haynes is the other main lead vocalist and consistently lays down a gutsy, dusty growl that fits the bluesy, world-weary material the Brothers specialize in.
Panic: As noted, John Bell is the primary lead vocalist. He has a distinctive sound, but strikes me as a little thin. Certainly his vocals make a Panic tune instantly identifiable. Keyboard player JoJo Hermann and drummer Todd Nance occasionally contribute a vocal.
Keyboards: Allman Brothers: Gregg Allman generally switches back and forth between the Hammond B-3 organ and an electric piano. Allman isn’t known for his keyboard playing. In fact, a review of decades of Allman Brothers records will reveal only a few Allman keyboard solos. When he does step out his playing is pleasant and fits the mood, but fireworks are rare.
Panic: JoJo Hermann plays organ, piano and synthesizers solos on a regular basis. Like many keyboard players, he obviously enjoys making a wide variety of sounds with his various instruments. He can construct a solo that travels through varied terrain and emotional landscapes. After Herring, he’s the one heard most often during the band’s jams.
Percussion section: Allman Brothers: Back in the 70s, the Allmans were really cool because they had two drummers. Only a handful of rock bands employed two drummers like that, notably the Grateful Dead and the Doobie Brothers. (Among rock bands Santana has always been in a class by itself in this area.) Over the last several years, the Allmans have upped the percussion ante by adding a third percussionist, Marc Quinones to accompany original drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe who usually both play trap sets. These three are able to set up what amounts to a percussion symphony of multiple textures that drives many of the band’s tunes to heights rarely achieved by bands consisting of mere mortals.
Panic: Todd Nance plays a trap set and Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz plays assorted percussion. Two percussionists give the band a multi-dimensional sound and drive the band much like the Brothers’ percussionists, but they never seem to quite make it to the symphonic level.
Bass: Allman Brothers: Like guitarists, the Allmans have been through a number of bassists over the years. The current one, Oteil Burbridge is in the mold of the band’s original bass player Barry Oakley in that he isn’t content to merely keep time and plunk four notes per measure. He runs up and down the fret board on a regular basis and provides a tasty counterpoint to the three percussionists and two guitarists.
Panic: Dave Schools on bass has to be the highlight of Widespread Panic. He plays a six string bass to anchor the low end and provide complex, melodic counterpoint to the action up above all at the same time.
So I’ll take the Allman Brothers over Widespread Panic, but that’s not to say Panic doesn’t have something to offer. Their cover of Bill Withers' “Use Me” (with Eric McFadden sitting in on guitar) in the second set was a particular highlight.