[17 July 2014]
When legendary journalist Hunter S. Thompson visited Las Vegas in the early ‘70s to report on a district attorneys’ conference on narcotics, he wound up penning a soliloquy for Rolling Stone magazine on the California counterculture revolution of the ‘60s that still resonates decades later:
“There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave… So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
Thompson captured the generational sense of remorse over a missed opportunity that has continued to haunt the progressive rock ‘n’ roll crowd ever since. “In 1969, you still thought the hippie thing was going to stop the Vietnam War and re-create the world… By 1974, you didn’t think that,” concurred David Crosby in the early July 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.
Thompson and his fellow counterculture revolutionaries were deeply inspired by the groundbreaking music of the era from the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, etc. Now the cultural civil war between freaks and fear continues over 40 years later. But that longing for spiritual transcendence through rock ‘n’ roll still lives on thanks to bands like Widespread Panic. The Georgia-based rockers are one of a handful of bands in the modern music scene that process much of rock history into their sound, with a penchant for adventurous psychedelic jams and timely covers to provide a new generation with a freak flag to wave wide and high.
A holiday Panic show provides the intrepid traveler with another flashing chance at bliss amidst the economic chaos that passes for the dwindling American Dream in 2014. The band has played a number of memorable shows in Sin City over the years and were upping the ante again here by bringing in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to collaborate at the Joint for the second consecutive July. The synergy between the two bands has been a growing legend at least since their 2000 live album Another Joyous Occasion, and this night was primed for more.
The Spreadheads were ready to celebrate Independence Day, with many decked out in patriotic red, white and blue garb. There were guys in Captain America shirts and a number of ladies in sexy spandex tights mimicking the American flag. Like Hunter Thompson, the rock ‘n’ roll crowd still maintains a fervent patriotic idealism for what America could be. And on a night like this, it was possible to once again feel like our energy could still prevail.
The band cranked the party into high gear on “Greta”, with bassist Dave Schools howling in response to the song’s line about “a pack of rabid dogs”. Guitar maestro Jimmy Herring ripped off blazing leads over keyboardist JoJo Hermann’s electrifying organ lines to generate the band’s patented sonic alchemy. The rocking jam gave way to beloved bluesy ballad “Blue Indian”, with its classic line from singer/guitarist John Bell, “How long ‘til the medicine takes?”
Dirty Dozen trumpeter Efrem Towns elevated the set by joining the band for a raucous take on the late Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now”, followed by percussionist/birthday boy Sunny Ortiz leading the intro to classic jam vehicle “Fishwater”. The band worked the fluid groove for an extended sonic journey with Schools, Towns, Hermann and Ortiz all delivering hot solos.
The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino provided unique atmosphere during the set break, with scantily clad ladies pole-dancing right out on the casino floor, injecting a little Sin City flavor into the mix. The second set started with the obligatory “USA” chant from the fans before the band proceeded with the musical fireworks. Several melodic rockers opened the set but it was the bustout of ZZ Top’s bluesy anthem “Jesus Just Left Chicago” that sent a jolt of electricity through the crowd. The line about Jesus leaving Chitown for New Orleans was a strategic foreshadowing of the festivities to come, when several members of the Dirty Dozen joined the band for the post-drum sequence to close the show in climactic fashion.
The vibe was almost akin to a Mardis Gras parade when Towns, fellow trumpeter Gregory Davis, baritone saxman Roger Lewis and tenor saxman Kevin Harris took the stage as Ortiz and drummer Todd Nance continued with a tribal beat of celebration. The horns blended with tight precision on Dr. John’s “Familiar Reality”, bringing the Joint into swaying unison on the deep cut’s tasty groove. The elation continued with a smooth segue into “Christmas Katie”, featuring a reference to “angels on high” on “the Fourth of July” before evolving into a smoking jam where Herring’s smoldering leads soared over the horn blasts from the Dirty Dozen.
If “Weight of the World” has become an obligatory team-up song for the two bands, it must be because of how well the horns accent the song’s polyrhythmic groove. It was another treat here, with great horn solos boosting the dance party jam. The band then went deep into the well of American music history for Robert Johnson’s seminal “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues“. They’d had a sensational jam on the tune with Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi in Chicago, and it was another barn burner here with the Dirty Dozen, bringing the set to a close in triumphant fashion.
The ethereal “Dream Song” opened the encore segment before the band went for the Guess Who’s “No Sugar Tonight / New Mother Nature” to end the night with an infectious blast of classic rock love. The perennial crowd pleaser seemed like a timely choice, acknowledging “a new Mother Nature taking over, she’s getting us all” here on America’s birthday, in an era of climate change demanding an evasive action that Uncle Sam has been too timid to take. Fans may have had their usual concerns to face upon leaving Las Vegas the next day, but there was no doubt that their souls were in a better place for having taken in this joyous affair.