Widespread Panic : Live in the Classic City II, MM

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As the saying goes, there’s no place like home. Artists always seem to step it up during hometown shows, as evidenced on Widespread Panic’s new concert release, Live in the Classic City II, MM.

Live in the Classic City, released in 2002, is still regarded by fans as one of Panic’s best live recordings, and this second edition matches the first in energy and presentation. Here the band has put together another great collection of never-before-released songs from that epic three-night run at the Classic Center Theater in their hometown the weekend of April 1-3.

These shows were peppered with an amazing supporting cast of guests, including R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Bloodkin’s Daniel Hutchens and Eric Carter, Dr. Arvin Scott, Anne Richmond Boston, and longtime collaborator and producer John Keane, all of whom lend significant weight to these brilliant performances.

Though Widespread Panic continues to perform a massive tour schedule yearly, the fact remains that their best days were heard leading up to these legendary concerts. Since the passing of founding member and guitarist Michael Houser in 2002, the band has struggled to find solid footing. The addition of Jimmy Herring on guitar has rejuvenated the group since his arrival in 2007; however, they will never be as good as the "Mikey years." Let’s face it; Houser was Widespread Panic and part of them died with him.

The proof is heard throughout this new live release. From the opening "Traveling Light," you can feel the connection Houser had with the rest of the band, his gritty guitar and flawless notes highlighting the band during their best period of performing. The nearly 12 minute "Barstools and Dreamers" showcases his hypnotic chords and climatic jams.  He also shines with face-melting crescendos on "Radio Child," a sometimes undervalued song from the 1997 studio release Bombs & Butterflies.

Although Houser may have been the quiet captain of this collective, the rest of the band were also extremely sharp during those days, and their presence and individual efforts are not lost on these shows. The dirty, funk-rock staple "Sleeping Man" is performed as energetically as it ever has been, fueled by David Schools’ ever-present, driving bass. Other highlights from this release include a big and bold "Fishwater," a percussion-led explosion from Sonny Ortiz and Todd Nance on the rockers "Greta" and the instrumental "E on a G," as well as John Hermann’s groovy freak-out known as "Big Wooly Mammoth."

The band also shares the stage and lead duties with the Carter and Hutchens on their original tunes "Success Yourself" and "End of the Show." The songs themselves are not all that exciting; however, with so many great musicians performing at once (including Mills, Scott, and Keane), it is blissful to hear.

The best song on this collection is arguably “Rebirtha." Here the band starts things off in standard-but-aggressive fashion before entering a mind-blowing jam. The boys play with full force and everyone is on the same page.  When Panic hits these places, there are few bands on earth who can match their intensity and cohesion.

The only real downside to this two-disc live release is in the delivery; more specifically, some songs flow nicely into each other while others will fade out and quit before another begins. It is kind of the norm for live releases that are not complete shows, but this collection begs for better continuinty.

Live in the Classic City II, MM is a must-have for Panic fans. It delivers solid performances from the band during a period when they were arguably playing better than ever. Classic indeed.

Live in the Classic City II, MM is out now on ATO Records.

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