September 21, 2007
It takes some bands a little while to shake off the rust and find their footing when going on tour. There can be plenty of mishaps and missteps in the first show especially, but when Widespread Panic took the stage at the FedExForum to kick off their fall tour, they were already playing at a high level. Sure, there were a few wrinkles to iron out, but they were already moving like a machine that had well-oiled parts.
In a thoughtful nod to Memphis, Panic recruited some heavy hitters to warm up the crowd each night of the two-night stand; Mavis Staples would serve as the table-setter on the second night, but at the first show, it was classic blues courtesy of Bobby "Blue" Bland. He led his band through a great set, telling stories between nearly every song. The cavernous arena was still fairly empty even midway through his set, so plenty missed classics like "Stormy Monday" and "Ain’t That Lovin’ You."
From the first notes of "A of D," it was clear that Widespread Panic meant business. As bassist Dave Schools thumped away, the band eased into the eveing, and got right to it with the classic "Space Wrangler." Guitarist and Santa Claus look-a-like Jimmy Herring and Schools have clearly developed a great rapport, and subtly played off of each other from the get-go.
The band moved into "Walkin’" with screams from the crowd, driven by the tight, honed rhythm section, and the band built the jam up with the assured deftness of an act that had been on the road for weeks. It was abundantly clear from this first night that the coming months will bring great things from Widespread Panic. Over the course of the night there would be a few wasted, extraneous notes, but "Walkin’" and the subsequent "Tie Your Shoes" had the tight, organic, sum-is-greater-than-parts playing that made Widespread Panic great.
Those previously "wasted" notes came out during "Rebirtha." As the jam built up at the end of the song, Herring went to work, at times cramming flurries of seemingly a thousand notes into one or two measures of music. One of the biggest gripes about former guitarist George McConnell was his tendency to play too many notes, venturing off on rapid-fire tangents. The irony is that the "new" Widespread Panic has a guitarist with a very similar style who doesn’t face that same backlash. Sure, there’s criticism of Jimmy Herring’s tendency to fire away, yet it’s not nearly as prevalent. He’s just more socially acceptable. In fairness, Herring is much more composed and in control, but it’s interesting to see fans who hated one quality in one guitarist accept the same in another.
The first set closed with a great "Ribs and Whiskey" and a raucous "Big Wooly Mammoth," the latter featuring a great walking bass line from Schools that had Herring’s blistering guitar work all over it. The crowd let out a yelp when John Hermann called for a fire to "burn Memphis down," and a strong first set came to a close.
The second set opened much like the first – instrumentally, with "Party At Your Mama’s House." The song really is a vehicle for everything that Jimmy Herring brings to the table, his precise, razor-sharp playing contrasted by his ability to keep things mellow yet eloquent. "PAYMH" founds its way into the nasty, sordid "Junior," Herring echoing John Bell’s vocal phrasing on his guitar.
"Glory" made its way back into the setlist for the first time since 2001 with little fanfare – it was solid, yet unspectacular; Hermann threw down some haunting notes and Herring put his stamp on the song like he did on every song, and things didn’t pick up much with Hermann’s "Smoking Factory." It’s certainly better off with Herring on lead, but it’s still a beer line (if the venue didn’t stop selling beer at set break which is another issue altogether), bathroom break song.
"Surprise Valley" was the perfect way to pick things back up, and the song really hasn’t sounded this great in years. If there’s one tune that contrasts McConnell-era Panic with Panic 3.0, it’s "Suprise Valley." Message board bitching told the tale, and a common criticism seemed to always find its way back into discussion: "Why can’t George nail the intro to ‘Suprise?’" When Herring took over, the griping was gone, and even after the break from touring, the new guy stuck the intro. From Hermann’s funky synth to Schools’ thundering bass, the song built up and then (shocker) Herring took over. His solo was fluid and well-composed – it was everything he is asked to do, boiled down and summed up in one song.
"Suprise Valley" melted into "Climb To Safety," which was followed by a massive four-song segue that saw Panic jump from a dark and dirty "Gilded Splinters" to "Chilly Water," then to "You Got Yours," and ending back in "Chilly."
"Time Is Free" represented everything that Panic 3.0 can be – a restrained runaway freight train. Schools drove the machine, his hammering bass pushing the jam forward and lighting the fire. JoJo added colorful accents to the mix, and Jimmy came in with his subtle touches. JB rambled on over the whole thing, bringing the pot to a boil. Just before bubbling over, though, they put the lid on and took the thing off the burner, slammed on the brakes, and slowed things down with "Mr. Soul" to close out the set.
The encore was unspectacular, which is often the case with Widespread Panic. "Imitation Leather Shoes" was good, but not great.
All in all, a very admirable tour opener. They were fairly sharp despite the time off, but the reality is the break wasn’t very long (less than two months) and they’re professionals – there shouldn’t be much rust to begin with.
Which leads to another point – the "professional." Jimmy Herring is truly a ringer – a guy who you know can step up and get the job done. The Allman Brothers needed a guitarist, and he stepped in and made great music on that summer 2000 tour. The Dead needed a guy to play Jerry Garcia’s parts, and they called Jimmy. Jimmy Herring has changed the dynamic of the band, for better or worse.
For better – he’s clearly the most gifted musician that has ever held post in Widespread Panic. His skill supercedes the rest of the band, past and present. However, the rub: the band defers to him too much. The cohesiveness is still there, but the natural progression is seemingly diminished. Herring dominates the stage, and in a clear manner – the formula today seems to be "start the song, build up the jam, and hand off to Jimmy."
This is neither a good nor bad thing – it’s just a different thing.
Set 1: A of D, Space Wrangler, Walkin’ (For Your Love), Tie Your Shoes > Pigeons, Blue Indian, Rebirtha > Ribs and Whiskey, Big Wooly Mammoth
Set 2: Party at Your Mama’s House > Junior, Glory, Smoking Factory, Surprise Valley > Climb to Safety, Guilded Splinters > Chilly Water > You Got Yours > Chilly Water, Time is Free > Mr. Soul
Encore: Imitation Leather Shoes