Widespread Panic Bayou Music Center October 27, 2013
There was once something in my life that was the best possible thing ever and was regularly available, but then I moved and it became much less regular. So I forgot about it, then I remembered it and I forgot how much I loved it, and it came back to me and didn't seem right at first but eventually made me remember why I loved it in the first place.
Anyway, Widespread Panic was and is that thing. With Sunday night's performance at a packed Bayou Music Center, the band's first in Houston in more than two years, they came determined to make up for their absence.
Let me preface this by saying that in my time of musical exploration, Widespread Panic were one of my "it" bands that influenced many different decisions and directions of where I was to end up in the spectrum. They were an alternative to "alternative," and I found a home in their music above many others.
It has been a while, though, since they've been in heavy rotation, and many other bands have come along to give me a similar satisfaction that Panic once did. Sunday's show was a return to my roots, though. It was an exploration of where I've come to since, and a remembrance of simpler days past.
The Athens, Ga.-based jam kings, who have been impressively playing to audiences for nearly 30 years, have had their ups and their downs over their career, but lately have seemed to have leveled off, playing to modest crowds on each stop along the way. They may not be headlining major festivals anymore, but they will never lose the die-hard following which will always help them pull in several thousand like-minded fans of the jam from night to night. At Sunday's nearly four-hour performance, Panic performed a set of mostly older material to the mesmerized crowd.
I don't know if I was lacking energy, the crowd was or the band was, but it took a very long time for the buzz to begin. The first set featured a slew of slower songs, including a cover of JJ Cale's "Travelin' Light," which was a bit toned down than their usual version. Not until "Space Wrangler" did the band really started to find their stride, but even that was a bit slower-paced than the norm.
The highest point of the first set came with the three closing songs: the rarely-played treat "Sleepy Monkey," the guitar-heavy "You Got Yours" and a set-closing "Action Man" that brought out the big guns from guitarist Jimmy Herring.
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With the energy throughout the first set a bit lacking, Panic had to return to form in the second part of the show or they were going to lose the crowd. It's tough enough keeping a huge Sunday audience at any Houston gig, but thankfully Panic's dedicated fanbase was in for the long haul. This set, while starting out a bit on the slow side, turned out to be the reason I love this band. "Picking Up the Pieces" was an early highlight, but the show finally found its legs during a lively version of "Chilly Water," which had the crowd tossing up their drinks in excitement.
From that point forward, the show was a completely different animal. Both the band and the crowd finally figured out the formula, and for the rest of the night the performance was what everyone came for. It was an ending that didn't at all match the rest of the show, but completely redeemed the entire evening. Singer John Bell finally started to seem a bit into it too, riffing on many different vocal parts throughout the entire second set.
There was much chatter around the room debating on whether they'd salute their fallen influence with a Velvet Underground cover, but it never materialized. They did pull out a haunting cover of WAR's "Four Cornered Room," which hypnotized the crowd with the help of the spectacular lighting work that stood out not only during this song, but throughout the entire performance.
The set closed with an energy that came from nowhere, which was immediately translated on to the rest of the room. The crowd had definitely dwindled a bit towards the end of the evening, which is to be expected among a room of mostly 30-year-olds on a Sunday night. Those who were left, though, were treated to the best playing of the night. The gritty guitar work on "Protein Drink" and the complementary "Sewing Machine" closed the set with vigor, and left the crowd stirring for more.
Panic came back after a brief encore break, and quickly jumped into the fitting four-days-before-Halloween "Vampire Blues," a fitting choice for four days before Halloween, and as much of a burner not in October as in. Bassist Dave Schools, drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz really locked in during the tune, featuring some of the dirtiest funk of the night.
The show really came to a head on a cover of Neil Young's "Walk On," which Panic has now made their own. Closing the performance, it was the perfect song to send the crowd packing into the muggy night air.
Review continues on the next page.
While I can't say that this was my pivotal Widespread Panic experience, it was a good one and a welcome return of the band to Houston. The crowd seemed to love every minute, and those that stayed ended up getting one hell of a performance from the aging rockers. While it wasn't personally my favorite show, it was good to finally catch them again, especially indoors for the first time in nearly ten years.
They still have that wow factor, and with this performance, they're right back on the radar again. Hopefully, though, it won't be another two-plus years before they make it back to town.
Personal Bias: I'm not sure if I made it clear during my article, but I've been much more than a casual fan of the band for many many years. While they're not in regular rotation anymore, they'll always be one of my favorite groups of all time.
Overheard In the Crowd:. The sound of little buttons clicking throughout the entire room. I'm not sure if they were e-cigs or what, but they were everywhere. I'm pretty sure it wasn't nicotine that people were vaporizing.
The Crowd: Lots of those fishing shirts. You know, the ones with the slits in the back to ensure coolness while casting a reel. Yeah, tons of those shirts. And the girls to match. And a bunch of crusty hippies. Of course they were there too.
Random Notebook Dump: Even though the band didn't perform a Lou Reed or Velvet Underground tune, as soon as the show was over "Walk On the Wild Side" was cued up on the PA. Instead of immediately leaving, like most audiences do when a show is over, the majority of the crowd milled around mouthing the lyrics to the very end of the song before finally taking off. Sunday was a sad day in the music community, and it was being felt as far as Houston. This was Panic's way of saluting the fallen legend.
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