It’s a typically sweltering Wednesday night in Austin, but the stylish new Moody Theater at ACL Live provides a needed antidote for the “live music capital of the world”. The swank venue offers indoor relief from the summer heat and great sound, something neither the venerable Stubbs BBQ or Austin Music Hall could provide on both counts. Widespread Panic are out on their 25th anniversary tour, hitting favorite venues both old and new, so there’s a festive vibe in the air. The band first played the new venue during SXSW in March and must have liked it quite a bit, because now they’re back for a two-night run that’s even being webcast.
In a rare coincidence, fellow jamrock titans Phish are also webcasting their show from Atlanta tonight. Why certain die-hard members of each band’s fanbase insist on hating on the other band remains a mystery. Both bands share a love for the improvisational adventures pioneered by the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band, so fans should remember the Dead’s classic line “ain’t no time to hate”.
The ACL Live venue is a blessing to Austin. The sound is crystal clear from all three levels, there’s not a bad seat in the house and there’s even a bar dedicated to Austin’s own local Tito’s vodka (try it with the local Sweet Leaf sweet tea for an only-in-Austin treat). Beforehand, fans gather across the street at Lamberts, one of Austin’s finest BBQ venues, where the crispy wild boar ribs are to die for. They also make a great Old Fashioned, the obvious drink of choice for those seeking to manifest a “Ribs and Whiskey” in the show’s set list. The first night received strong marks from local Spreadheads in attendance and now it’s time for night two.
“Chainsaw City” is an early highlight, with drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo Ortiz synching in on the reggae-tinged groove. Ace lead guitarist Jimmy Herring flexes his considerable chops during “Little Kin”, and then the band chemistry starts to gel around his liquid runs during the following instrumental, “B & D”. The energy keeps building as the band opens up on “Diner”, for the first big jam of the night. Singer/guitarist John Bell settles into a smooth groove here and Ortiz’s percussion gives the song’s jangly chords an extra boost. Bassist Dave Schools lays down a thick groove and Herring rips a short but sizzling solo before the second verse, then another fret dazzler on an extended jam section. But then there’s another verse, and then an even longer jam where the groove deepens with keyboardist JoJo Hermann adding his signature sonic flavor, and Herring just shreds all over. Now the show is in full flight.
“Party at Your Mama’s House” finds the band dipping into one of the perennial crowd pleasers from their classic 1999 album, ‘Til the Medicine Takes. The lazy slide guitar and percussion start the tune off like a breezy summer day, before the rest of the band kicks in for one of their tastiest melodic jams. It serves as a perfect prelude to the triumphant rendition of “Ribs and Whiskey” that closes the set in grand style, with a timely nod to Austin’s local flavor. The song’s slide guitar intro oozes with bluesy Southern flavor, like barbecue sauce dripping off those ribs. Hermann stars again, as he lays down some great piano plunking over the fat groove from Schools while Bell and Herring riff out. The whole crowd shares in the delicious sonic platter.
It’s a festive vibe during the set break, with the bars doing a brisk business thanks to one of the hardest partying fanbases in all of music. When the band comes back for the second set, they’re all fired up and ready to go as they jump right into an edgy blues jam with “Waitin’ for the Bus>Jesus Just Left Chicago”. The ZZ Top classic simmers with bluesy goodness in one of the evening’s highlights.
Schools busts the set wide open with his monster low end on “Imitation Leather Shoes”, and this is where Herring really shines. The shred master has been in the band for five years now, but there’s still creative tension sometimes as he seeks to fill the shoes of the late great Mikey Houser. Houser played in a more spacious style with not quite so much shred. Herring also brings a much hotter tone, sometimes a bit too searing to the ears of some. But it’s on tunes like this where Herring can really cut loose and it fits like a glove. Hermann also lays down a great electric organ solo, again delivering the sonic frequency that helps give Panic their signature sound. It’s a trademark smoking Panic jam, the type that causes a legion of fans to follow them around from town to town.
Another occurs during “Rebirtha”, a groovy jam vehicle that takes off on a super funky jam triggered again by Hermann’s dynamic keyboard work, again activating the Panic x-factor. Then the band turns on a smooth dime mid-jam into “I Walk on Guilded Splinters”, keeping the groovy bliss flowing. The energy just keeps on surging as the band moves into “You Got Yours,” which opens with a mesmerizing blues simmer before taking off into another great jam, including a left-field turn into a great jam within the jam on Gary Neumann’s classic “Cars”. The x-factor really clicks in here with, with Hermann pounding the piano and Herring melting face with his smoking licks. Herring slays again during “Papa’s Home”, spurred on by the monster bombs being dropped by Schools.
“Henry Parsons Died” doesn’t seem like quite the climactic song called for to end the set, but the band isn’t finished yet. A big encore starts off strong with “Dirty Side Down”, the dynamic title track from last year’s new album. It’s an instant Panic classic, with multiple layers of melodic groovy goodness and spiritually oriented lyrics about making one’s way through this topsy turvy world. The band moves seamlessly into a gorgeous teaser jam on Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun”, as the treats just keep coming. Schools and Herring harmonize their riffs on the cosmic classic as an intro into “Pleas”, dipping into the back catalogue to 1993’s Everyday for yet another triumphant jam. They ride that through one more beautifully seamless segue into Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul”, rocking out on the ‘60s classic for all its worth.
Twenty-five years and counting, and Widespread Panic are still mixing in great curve balls with their smoking heaters. It’s such diversity that keeps things interesting for both the band and the fans, something that younger bands who hope to stick around as long would be wise to observe.