Widespread Panic took a sabbatical in 2012 – we won’t call it a hiatus – and spent a solid 10 months off the road before returning for a New Year’s Eve run and sounding comfortably refreshed. It was only the second time in the band’s sprawling, 27-year history that it had opted out of touring for such an extended period, and unlike its yearlong 2004 hiatus – that time, it definitely was—this time the break didn’t seem born of physical and emotional exhaustion so much as a need to chill out and regroup.
The sabbatical did the band good. If protracted stretches of time away are what’s necessary to keep this long-running titan of American jambands healthy, then so be it. Too much good music is being made for Panic to fade, and too much has gone into the preservation of the band since the crushing death of founding guitarist Michael Houser 11 years ago.
The group sounds only like itself: Widespread Panic, the little ol’ Georgia rock ‘n’ roll and boogie band with the monster rhythm section, the idiosyncratically soulful frontman, the dynamite guitar leads and rollicking keyboard flourishes, the hard groove, all the stylistic quirks and the mélange of musical influences from New Orleans and Memphis to San Francisco and Chicago. How it works has never been so interesting as that it works, and that it still works.
What Panic sounds like today versus the (roughly) 1997-2002 zenith of its strongest era is the subject of much debate among Spreadheads. But the band that pulled into New York’s Theater at Madison Square Garden didn’t seem too concerned—it got to business with ruthless efficiency. The show lit off like a firecracker – a beat-you-till-you’re-bloody first set that closed with a rib-tickling Motorhead cover – and then yielded some of its momentum for a more predictable, even-keeled second set that wrapped up the show favoring calm satisfaction over catharsis and pyrotechnics.
Some fans afterward pegged the band as tired for how unostentatiously the tour closer ended: no marquee guest musicians for the Big Apple, no big surprises, no deep-catalog bustouts. But it didn’t seem like “tired” to these ears; Widespread Panic knew what it was doing in New York, and that was putting on a coolly full-figured showcase of what it can, in its 27th year, still do better than most.
You had a mix of adequately jammed-through Panic classics like “Greta”, “Barstools and Dreamers”, “Love Tractor” and “Surprise Valley.” You had airings of recent repertoire additions like the blues standard “Drinkin Muddy Water” and Motorhead’s speed metal staple “Ace of Spades,” more fun than maybe it deserved to be as an unexpected first set tack-on. You had dark and tender readings of material by semi-obscure dark and tender artists (Bloodkin’s “Can’t Get High” and “End of the Show”; Vic Chesnutt’s “Protein Drink”/“Sewing Machine” pairing) that Panic has taken upon itself to promote for years, darkly and tenderly.
Perhaps above all, you had a showpiece, wipe-your-brow second-set suite of music that moved from nebulous space in and out of hard-charging, percussion-driven jams. It was a 40-minute sequence that began in “Driving Song” – an ancient Panic tune, every bit as pensive now as in 1986—coursed through the JJ Cale favorite “Ride Me High,” bottomed out in the haunted, chantey-like “Mercy,” and finally trundled its way into fan favorite “Bust It Big,” which had a little of everything: shout-it-out choruses, fearsome guitar leads, dueling bass and keys and a drum spotlight that focused on unflappable drummer Todd Nance and equally unflappable percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz.
Panic as jamband is a curiosity, often as song-based and straight-laced as it is noodly. You don’t often get the long, blissed-out, meandering, psychedelic odysseys of the Grateful Dead or Phish. At the same time, a Panic progression is more fluid than, say, in the Allman Brothers Band, which favors dazzling displays of guitar firepower in length-flexible, but clearly-defined sections of songs.
No, the Widespread Panic hallmark – what really gets the place jumping—is the runaway-train feeling that kicks in when the band’s on a tear. It isn’t hard to spot: the band’s taken its time to patiently ramp, when frontman John Bell’s singing gradually turns growly, more pained and meaner, when Nance, Ortiz and drummer Dave Schools build to a floor-shaking roil, when Jimmy Herring’s guitar busts through and then soars above the clamor. Panic attacks the heart of its songs like it’s charging up the hill into battle, and maybe there’ll be casualties.
Discussion of Panic in 2013 inevitably leads to Herring, who was an established guitar god before joining the band full-time in 2006, and favors an aggressive, note-heavy approach to guitar leads informed by a background in jazz-fusion. Herring’s playing is tonally gorgeous in what might be called a “metallic” way – squealing leads, paint-peeling wails and chaotic flurries of notes, yes, but also a logical doling-out and sequencing of musical ideas. The effect is that his playing feels both carefully considered and impatiently antsy, sometimes to the benefit of the music and sometimes to a fault, as if Herring’s trying to prove he’s more of a virtuoso than these songs require.
His approach still leaves room for debate: how much deference to the unusual way Houser played is too much, versus how much emphasis on the way Herring likes to play would make this sound not like Widespread Panic?
But the band that showed up in mid-November to slay New York City didn’t concern itself with analytical questions like that one – its workmanlike demeanor told us not to be concerned. Panic 2013 doesn’t play nonchalantly, but also doesn’t play like it has to prove itself so much as offer a sincere assessment of its strengths and longevity.
The group deserves that comfort zone. Among the A-list jambands born in the mid ‘80s through about the early ‘90s, none has been more consistent that this one for as long a period, nor seems as poised to remain so. Bell and Houser wrote “Driving Song” among the early Panic originals and in it is the lyric, “An honest tune with a lingering lead has taken me this far.” In 1986, it probably spoke to a young band’s defiance. In 2013, it speaks to an older band’s commitment.