After losing guitarist Michael Houser to cancer, Widespread Panic went searching not just for another instrumentalist, but for their center. They released the studio album Ball, which showed the band trading in their esoteric metaphoric story songs for somber, introspective fare. The album also featured the band’s new guitarist, George McConnell, who had the unenviable task of filling a void for discerning, even fanatic connoisseurs.
Then, when it looked as though Widespread Panic had rediscovered and re-established their sound, the band announced a one year hiatus, offering the live album Night of Joy as a document of the apogee they had reached since Houser’s passing. Pointing to the band’s future, the release will saliently remind many listeners of the past. Not the late 1960s many jam bands attempt to replicate, but the early to mid 1970s sound.
In this case, the oft-uttered comparison of Widespread Panic to Little Feat. Widespread Panic has shown a similar affinity for New Orleans frontline furies, double entendre laden lyrics, and an emphasis on percussion. Lead vocalist John Bell certainly doesn’t have Lowell George’s range, and shows no patent emotional variations from one song to the next, which can be excused as another quirk in the Widespread Panic’s coat of arms.
But when Widespread Panic teams with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in the live setting, the results, as Night of Joy exposes, make the Little Feat comparisons even more appropriate. The songs aren’t nearly as good, in fact choruses and bridges rub together, but in their horn-hyped way they tread the same regional trail. The music doesn’t ooze, doesn’t move like so many of their unctuous peers in the jam band world. Instead, they power, pushing with the horns forward. With 12 individuals on stage, the unit goes forward without stalling, while miraculously side stepping the noodling and inane improvisations that such a group would seem prone for accepting.
This is even true when Widespread Panic and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band stretch the New Orleans shuffle of “Rebirtha”. At 17 minutes, it somehow avoids being soporific, when it really should be. The horns push the band, forcing guitarist George McConnell to acknowledge and wail alongside them. Keyboardist John Hermann then doesn’t fall into his contrived Allen Toussaint taps, as he often does, but instead matches the intensity of the proceedings. While the chords and keys change, the single bass lopes onward, Dave Schools venturing up the neck, then back to the more familiar worlds of the low end.
It represents an acme that the Stevie Wonder cover “I Wish” doesn’t reach. Not because the horns, guitars, and percussionists won’t, but because John Bell can’t. The vocals are emphatic and soulful, avoiding the irony of Phish or String Cheese Incident, but they also don’t sound nearly appropriate enough and are closer to an ersatz than probably intended.
While the Widespread Panic originals, such as the opening “Thought Sausage” and “Thin Air”, suffer from banality, they have plenty of puissance, but the songs themselves are weak and derivative, their variations and compositional qualities boring and mashed together into something overtly simplistic. They sound out of place and inadequate given the talent collected on the stage.
But, maybe with the hiatus the band will have time to focus on these shortcomings. Maybe the blur of the last few years will come into a more lucid focus. Compared to their peers, Widespread Panic clearly has panache and blues soul as well as a sense of improvisational space. They simply don’t have the compositions to contain all of their extemporizing. A joyful night it may be, but it isn’t a Columbus everyone is waiting for just yet.