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Reviews

Widespread Panic: 16 November 2013 - New York

Chad Berndtson
Photo by Mike Hardaker; courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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.

Widespread Panic

Artist: Widespread Panic

City: New York
Venue: Madison Square Garden
Date: 2013-11-16

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.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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