Widespread Panic @ Palace Theatre – April 16
Words and Images: Rex Thomson
The “American Dream,” the concept that with hard work and a dash or three of inspiration anyone can succeed, lives in Widespread Panic, the lil’ band that could. From tiny rooms and frat parties to sold out tours they’ve looked out to see crowds of jubilant faces from a hundred to a hundred thousand with one constant…they gave each and every listener all they had.
[All Photos by Rex Thomson]
Though the last few years have seen the band take extended breaks, no fan has begrudged them a chance to collectively catch their breath after 25+ years of bringing authentic southern rock to any and every pair of ears they could pack in front of them. With a new tour under way and shows lined up across their south eastern base, the band is at home on the stage as they have ever been, and it shows in every facet of their performances…masterful, comfortable and in the zone. They brought all this to bear for a packed house of diehard fans at the Louisville Palace for the first of a two night stand that had the feeling of a homecoming.
Widespread Panic has visited the River City dozens of times throughout their existence…the size and rabidness of the faithful followers growing each time. From memorable shows in the Phoenix Hill Tavern in their infancy to headlining spots on the stage of the city’s Forecastle Festival, the band has made themselves right at home in Louisville.
Choosing the Louisville Palace for their two-night run made perfect sense, as the theater is the city’s most ornate and finest sounding venue for live music. The Palace lives up to it’s name, ornate statuary, ceramic masks and three story lobby gives way to a Spanish villa styled interior…dark blue ceilings designed and lit to resemble the sky as the sun slips below the horizon. It’s easy to spot first time visitors to the Palace – they’re the ones standing in awe of their surroundings, admiring every nook and cranny of this splendid venue.
It’s in the luxurious surroundings that Panic’s new stage and light show had been erected earlier in the day. With no opening act needed to warm up the audience, the band took the stage to delirious cheers as light beams cut through the darkened theater like waves of cosmic fire…illuminating faces and outstretched hands as the fans reached forward as one towards the combination of sight and sound before them.
John Bell’s gruff yet somehow smooth voice and raucous guitar took center stage as always, fronting Panic seemingly the job he was born to do. Unapologetic in their southern roots, the band’s sound hearkens to other classic acts but never imitates or follows any path other than the one they blaze themselves. With the rhythm section of drummer Todd Nance and flamboyant percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz filling the back beat with crashing beats, staccato percussion and a wide variety of chimes, hand drums and congas the beat went on and on, always in perfect time. The percussive pair’s years together have honed them into a perfect tandem of players, shifting sonic duties back and forth seamlessly and with a smiling glances and near unconscious synergy.
On top of this rich tapestry bassist Dave Schools laid down a deep, punchy line that altered heartbeats and mind sets while never over powering the mix. Keyboardist JoJo Hermann bought his trademark mix of uptempo piano fills and rich organ chords that alternately accentuated and dominated, stepping to the forefront and to the rear with a complete lack of musical ego one could expect from such a great talent.
Guitarist Jimmy Herring has made the right side of the stage his own private laboratory…making mad combinations of delightful peals and crunchy leads, alternatively clean and refreshing then down and dirty. Clearly capable of doing anything he wants on the six string at any moment, Herring emanates a power and musical intelligence that resonates through his every chord and solo. Together, these six men have perfected a style all their own, anthemic, homespun and rich in something so many bands seem to miss these days – fun.
That sense of delight permeates everything they did on the Palace stage, from the opening strains of Papa Legba with Ortiz’s didgeridoo call to arms leading the way, through a traditional version of All Time Low perfectly segued into a crowd pleasing, guitar drenched Travelin’ Light. The snappy drum beats of Barstools and Dreamers served as the back drop to the first big guitar break of the night, letting Herring show off the wizardry that he is well known for. A fun take on the Bill Withers classic Use Me had the crowd shaking everything they had to the back and forth of Herring and JoJo Hermann, finally giving way to a much needed break for the crowd to recover as much as possible before the second half got underway.
After one-off takes on Better Off and One Arm Steve Panic went on one of their infamous tears…no stopping for anything or anyone. Reeling off a epic run of tunes, Aunt Avis into Greta to a much loved, full rocking I Walk On Gilded Splinters straight on into Big Wooly Mammoth then Christmas Katie and Let It Rock – the crowd was left breathless and amazed. The cheers from half the crowd counterpointing the other half who simply stood in shock, catching their breath for the final brace of songs left in the evening.
Coming back for an encore, the instant recognition of It Ain’t No Use had the already enthusiastic crowd fired up and dancing to the dual keyboard and guitar showcase moments, with the rhythm section also getting a moment to shine. As the last notes gave way to a new beginning the first notes of Blind Faith’s classic Can’t Find My Way Home brought the few seated fans to their feet…exhaustion giving way to the raw energy and love of their heroes taking a rock and roll masterpiece and making it completely their own. With the show over and the band bidding good night til tomorrow, the crowd was left to find their own ways home, filled to the brim with a love that can only come from sharing time with the music that has made the last few decades of their lives that much brighter.
1: Papa Legba, All Time Low > Travelin’ Light, Barstools and Dreamers, Party At Your Mama’s House > Ribs And Whiskey, Flicker > I’m Not Alone, Weight Of The World, Use Me
2: Better Off, One Arm Steve, Aunt Avis > Greta > I Walk On Guilded Splinters > Big Wooly Mammoth > Christmas Katie > Let It Rock > Fishwater
E: It Ain’t No Use > Can’t Find My Way Home
[‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’ tease before ‘Christmas Katie’; ‘Tequila’ tease by Dave during ‘Fishwater’]
[via Everyday Companion]