Chasing the American Dream in Sin City with one of the finest ensembles the music world has to offer
It was an opportunity that was too good to turn down. My attorney friend in Phoenix knew that this unemployed Southern California-based journalist was saving all his nickels and dimes for the west coast Phish run that was coming at the end of July. Yet he shamelessly suggested that my character would be in question if I didn’t meet him in Vegas two weeks prior for Widespread Panic’s two-night stand at the Joint inside the Hard Rock Hotel.
My attorney friend knew all the right buttons to push, noting that this was our overdue opportunity to follow in the footsteps of gonzo legend Hunter S. Thompson in pursuing the ever-endangered American Dream on a road trip to Sin City. The devious fiend even pointed out the synchronous chance to cover a speech by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul at the Gold Nugget on the day of Saturday’s show, knowing this would appeal to my professional desire to cover public affairs in addition to music. I couldn’t help but agree that infiltrating the speech undercover style, a la Raul Duke and Dr. Gonzo attending the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in 1971, sounded like a great idea.
When I discovered that the Dirty Dozen Brass Band was to open both shows, I knew my fate was sealed because the music gods were clearly calling my name. I’d seen the Dirty Dozen perform with Widespread Panic in San Francisco on its fall 2000 tour and the results were scintillating. I’d caught the pairing again in Vegas on Halloween 2005 to cap off the Vegoose Festival with an epic show for the ages, the recordings of which have remained in personal rotation ever since. The memories of that monumental second set remain seared in my consciousness for eternity. The Crystal Method spun during set break at the Thomas & Mack Arena, keeping the first set’s festive costume party vibe going strong. The Dirty Dozen then rejoined Panic to open the second set with a blockbuster rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” that seemed to shake the foundations of the universe. It was no surprise then when Mars Attacks style aliens appeared on stage toward the end of the show.
When you take one of America’s greatest improvisational rock and roll bands and add in one of New Orleans’ greatest horn sections, the result is a magical musical alchemy. And when you go to see a band like Widespread Panic in a city like Las Vegas, there’s a sense of adventure that surpasses the standard concert junket. Jam bands aim for transcendence when they search for the magic groove. It doesn’t happen every night, as the Black Crowes detailed in their classic “Wiser Time”, but when it does, it’s something special. The chance to see Widespread Panic and the Dirty Dozen together again was a precious opportunity to be seized. I found a rideshare on Craigslist to cut the gas costs, a process our motley crew of travelers dubbed “organized hitchhiking.” 21st century technology can have its advantages.
The Friday night show had been a barnburner but we knew the best was still to come. My attorney pal and I did indeed take in the Saturday afternoon speech at the Gold Nugget by Sen. Rand Paul, who seemed to be positioning himself for a 2016 presidential run. His libertarian tendencies make him seem a little saner than the typical field of right-wing lunatics that generally occupy the top echelon of the Republican Party, but that’s an entirely separate and forthcoming article.
Just the fact that you could witness such a political contender speak in the afternoon and then head across town to catch one of America’s greatest counterculture bands made it seem like the American Dream was still in play, despite the dire economic conditions in this foul year of our lord 2013. Most Republicans probably wouldn’t approve of the hard partying Spreadhead lifestyle, yet here in Las Vegas these opposing cultural forces could both find an audience.
The Spreadheads had pretty much taken over the Hard Rock Hotel, making for a festive vibe of like-minded souls. The hotel casino is a temple of tribute to the rock and roll lifestyle, making it one of the best places in the country to see a show. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band delivered an energetic opening set that had the crowd getting down on the good foot, just as it had the night before. The longtime mainstays of the New Orleans music scene have a funky sound and a good time vibe that never goes out of style. The Dirty Dozen sat in for the end of Friday’s first set on a stellar segment of “Weight of the World > Bust It Big > Use Me > Tail Dragger” that practically lit the Joint on fire. The jam on Bill Withers’ funk classic “Use Me” was one of those transcendent moments where everyone in the room knew that the Joint was undoubtedly the place to be on planet Earth on this weekend. If previous patterns held true, the Dirty Dozen would sit in during the second set on Saturday night. But the rock warriors of Widespread Panic would not be holding back in the first set.
A “Henry Parsons Died” opener kicked off the show and then the band served notice to strap in for a night to remember with a sizzling “Surprise Valley”, a classic usually reserved for jam vehicle space later in the show. The tune lights a fuse every time with its polyrhythmic percussion, the rumbling bass line, the soaring guitar lines and the jammy electric organ. Lead guitarist Jimmy Herring absolutely slayed it, with liquid lines that boggled the mind with his devastating chops. Then keyboardist JoJo Hermann grabbed the baton for a deep solo as the jam continued to build. “It’s time to fly,” sang vocalist/rhythm guitarist John Bell as the set indeed took flight.
“I’m Not Alone” brought things down a notch tempo wise, but the cathartic ballad clearly struck a chord with the appreciative fan base. The tune then moved into a faster jam segment that found the band totally dialed in. The set continued to soar with “Dirty Side Down”, the instant classic title track from the band’s 2010 LP. “Climb aboard, catch this ride,” Bell sang, conjuring visions of Hunter Thompson’s classic quote, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” The song epitomizes the Georgia band’s unique talent for blending a dirty Southern sound with a majestic melodic vibe. This one was a keeper, with Herring slaying another smoldering solo in a bid for the evening’s MVP award. But the guitar solos wouldn’t sound quite so amazing if there wasn’t an all-star team setting the table, and that’s what continues to make Widespread Panic one of the best outfits in the business – team chemistry.
It seemed the band could do no wrong as it moved into the uplifting groove of “Wondering”, as the set continued with a seamless flow that doesn’t happen every night. The 1993 classic from the band’s Everyday was a perfect choice here. The band dialed up an off speed pitch with the gritty blues of “Ribs and Whiskey”, but it hit the mark just right. Hermann dropped a great piano solo over the deep walking groove laid down by bassist Dave Schools and all of a sudden the bluesy number elevated when Herring injected some more of his liquid sonic wizardry.
Bell then introduced “one-third of the Dirty Half Dozen” as Kevin Harris and Roger Lewis joined the band on tenor and baritone saxophone for the sublime “Picking Up the Pieces,” another Everyday classic about sweating out one’s worries. Drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Sunny Ortiz took the lead, laying down a magically relaxed syncopation. The song has a gorgeous jazzy flavor, and adding in the Dirty Dozen sax men activated the elusive x-factor that can lift a song from regular classic to arguably the best version ever. The magic was accented further by the band’s stellar psychedelic light show, with the new 2013 lighting design arguably outdoing all other psychedelic jam bands this year.
Then word came from some of the California baseball fans in the crowd that the San Francisco Giants’ Tim Lincecum was tossing a no-hitter at Petco Park in San Diego against the Padres. It seemed appropriate because it felt like Widespread Panic was pitching a perfect game so far. The perfection continued as the set closed with a fabulous trio of “Can’t Get High > Big Wooly Mammoth > Chilly Water”, a cathartic melodic blues followed by a honky tonk romp that got the whole place dancing and singing along, capped off with a monster trip through one of the band’s top jam vehicles. Schools’ bass threatened to shake the foundations on “Chilly Water”, while the blend of Herring’s jolting guitar and Hermann’s pulsing organ electrified every soul in the house. This had to be not only one of the best sets of the band’s summer tour, but one of the best sets by any band on the planet in 2013.
The second set may not have had quite as perfect a flow, although it came darn close (and Lincecum did indeed complete his no-hitter.) The bluesy “Saint Ex” opened the set before the band’s seminal “Space Wrangler” kicked the party back into high gear. An extended jam on the funky groove of “Rebirtha” kept things popping with Hermann and Herring once again riffing off each other in dynamic fashion. “Sell Sell” was another great selection with its groovy syncopated message against selling out.
The standard mid-second set drum jam followed, giving everyone a chance to catch their breaths or freshen their drinks before the impending fireworks when the Dirty Dozen returned to the stage. The crowd hooted in appreciation as the brass men rejoined the band for Dr. John’s “Walk on Guilded Splinters”, one of the all-time New Orleans classics. The horns accented the bluesy groove in masterful fashion, leaving no doubt that the ensemble onstage here was one of the finest that Earth has to offer. The lilting blues of “Christmas Katie” provided something of a jazzy break where the horns again elevated the song to a higher level that made fans wish Widespread Panic could just take the Dirty Dozen on tour. But then these special occasions wouldn’t be quite as precious as they are. The song turned on a dime into a hot jam with Herring’s smoking guitar accented in fantastic fashion by the horns.
“Slipping Into Darkness” offered yet another masterful blend of jazz, soul and blues rock with Bell delivering some of his deepest vocals, while the Dirty Dozen hit all the right notes. The horns danced in between the percussion from Ortiz and Nance with a jazzy grace and bluesy elegance. It set the stage for the supreme jam of the night when the ensemble busted out with the much-desired “Superstition” to close the set in epic fashion, sending the audience into a delirious dance of triumphant ecstasy. It’s hard to imagine another band that could crush this prototype funk jam deeper than Widespread Panic, especially due to Hermann’s sonic mastery on the song’s unique keyboard groove. Adding in the Dirty Dozen elevated the monster groove higher still, making it feel like the crowd was walking on water right along with the band.
A triple encore hit all the bases. “Many Rivers to Cross” opened the segment with a thoughtful ballad about the road traveled, followed by the uplifting melodic instrumental of “The Take Out”. One more dynamic rocker closed it out with “Porch Song”, in which the band was joined by comedian Carrot Top on percussion. The muggles of the music world don’t get bands like Widespread Panic, with their ever-rotating set lists and the extended jams that inspire fans to travel many a mile in the hope of catching a show like this one where all the variables align for an unforgettable night of transcendent magic. And that’s just fine with the Spreadheads, because it wouldn’t be a counterculture band of their own if everybody in the mainstream dug it. Bands that play the same set list every night will never know nights like this one.
Arizona rockers Spafford kept the jams going for the late night party people on both nights with free aftershows at the Hard Rock Hotel’s Vinyl nightclub, just down the hall from the Joint. The funky quartet has chops to burn and had clearly studied the masters. One groovy song recalled Phish’s “Gotta Jiboo” to some extent, with a deep pocket and a flowing hose jam that had the crowd captivated. If you were still on cloud nine from the main event and wanted to keep rocking until 3 am, Spafford had you covered.
Widespread Panic meanwhile was off to the next show in Flagstaff on Sunday, and there was no doubt that many of the Vegas attendees would be following them there. As to the American Dream, it may well be endangered but it’s not dead yet.