You have to admire a band that’s willing to take chances when it plays live. It’s probably one of the reasons that, in an age of the pre-packaged pabulum that dominates most of the charts these days, jam bands are so popular. Like them or not, jam artists take chances in their live shows. That can be a good and bad thing, as was evidenced by Widespread Panic’s rather schizophrenic show on Saturday night at the Fillmore.
Over the course of three hours, Panic sunk to rare lows and rose back to dizzying heights. The band is playing all-acoustic during this run, which might account for some of the misfires, but it also let them stretch their wings a bit.
In some ways, the Fillmore was a poor choice for the all-acoustic run, which might have done better in a seated venue like the Paramount. There were signs on the way in that stated it was an acoustic show, and requested that people should have “respect for the band and other fans and be quiet when the music is playing.” The message seemed lost on many, especially as you got farther back in the venue.
The first set kicked off with “Henry Parsons Died,” which really didn’t translate well to acoustic guitar, but the “Heaven” that followed created a soulful dreamscape of sound and emotion, setting the bar high for the rest of the night. That proved the high point of the first set, though. One of the lowlights was a new song called “Shut Up and Drive,” which seemed like a band stealing from itself, as it had the same beat and almost the same chord structure as “Rock,” from its second album.
The odd placement of the usual set-closing “Let’s Get This Show On the Road” may have accounted for its lack of punch, but a reworked, almost gospel revival version of “Tall Boy” to close the set brought the band back on track, and hinted at what was coming in the second set. Lead guitarist Jimmy Herring and singer John Bell smiled while bassist Dave Schools riffed an almost “Lovelight” line. It would not be the last time that Grateful Dead music crept into Panic’s jamming.
If set one had been low energy and somewhat uninspiring, Panic brought the heat in the second set. Bell’s soulful delivery on the opening “Fishing” set the pace. The set really kicked into high gear on “Mercy.” Herring spun a wicked solo toward the end that led into a long jam on the Grateful Dead’s “Bird Song.” Instead of playing that Dead classic however, Panic dug into “Jack,” with John “JoJo” Hermann weaving a dark, moody keyboard riff over the bridge.
Hermann really stepped out on long, dazzling “Ride Me High.” The acoustic delivery let Herring lay off a bit and find a tight, classic groove over Schools’ and Hermann’s rhythm playing before Hermann stepped back in with rolling piano lines that rumbled into sultry, swampy New Orleans Delta territory. Bell and Hermann harmonized beautifully on the verses.
The “Papa’s Home” sandwiched around “Driving Song” sent the show into orbit. Herring reached into almost flamenco phrasing on his guitar during a long jam, and after the second half of “Driving,” the band launched into the rarely-played “Breathing Slow” jam, which started slowly and wove through darker, more melodic territory.
As if that wasn’t enough, Panic hit a three-song encore, including a debut performance of “Dang Me.” Drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz stepped out from behind the glass that masked their massive kits, with Nance playing on what appeared to be a white bucket and Ortiz on shakers, keeping time as only they can.
Henry Parsons Died, Heaven, Tickle The Truth, Shut Up and Drive, Aunt Avis, Help Me Somebody, Saint Ex, Let’s Get The Show On The Road, Tail Dragger, Tall Boy
Fishing, C. Brown, Papa Johnny Road, Mercy -> Jack, Ride Me High -> Driving Song -> Papa’s Home -> Driving Song -> Breathing Slow, Ribs and Whiskey E: Dang Me, And It Stoned Me, Mr. Soul
Todd Radunsky is a Boulder-based photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.