Ask a Panic fan what they think of any show and you will get a range of responses ranging from “the boys are on fire!” to “ they’re playing like complete shit and you shoulda been there last night.” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because the experience of seeing a Widespread Panic show is an individual one, and it certainly didn’t matter on Wednesday night when the band finished off their second night at the Moody Theater in Austin. In the absence of drummer Todd Nance – who decided to sit a handful of dates out for personal reasons – the band has recruited the young and feisty Duane Trucks to handle the skins. Weighing over the fans was whether or not Duane can fill such a seat.
It’s no secret that the band has been repeating songs more frequently than is common on this tour, and perhaps that has to do with showing young Duane the ropes. However, at Wednesday’s show the setlist that was played out read like a wet dream for the average fan. “Space Wrangler,” “Tall Boy,” and “Walkin’ (For Your Love)” all made appearances during the first set, and while the versions played were amped up, the band seemed to be holding back from going into all out face melt land. Most songs were played straightforward with the exception of “Stop Go,” which the band cut loose into and finally began opening up into a sort of desert highway jam – the kind that veers off the road into mystical peyote land.
Set two saw Panic members dialing it in a little more and stretching out, with jams on “Barstools and Dreamers,” “Chilly Water,” and “Papa’s Home” sprawling out and going full throttle. The latter captured the entire band collaborating for one improvisational segment that felt truly gyrational, and was aided mostly by the explosive tinkering of JoJo Hermann on the keys. It was at this point that the band decided to leave the stage and let young Duane do his thing with the help of Sunny Ortiz, who acted like a sort of percussionist shaman guiding the boy through his drum journey on an extended dual pound-off. When the other members did return to the stage they stood close to Duane and seemed to be offering that kind of grandfatherly encouragement that is at once uplifting and educational. The drummer stayed on track and on point through “Blight” and during fan favorite “Protein Drink” his rhythmic backbone allowed ax slayer Jimmy Herring to get positively medieval in his shredding, venturing into dark almost metal territory that drove the fans into a drink spilling frenzy.
Returning to the stage once more, lead singer John Bell toned things down with his cover of the Talking Heads classic “City of Dreams,” which didn’t drift far from the original but saw JoJo Hermann adding zesty flavor to the song with his saloon style piano playing. “Tail Dragger” kicked up to end the set on a properly greasy Southern rock note, closing out the two-night run on a high. In true Panic fashion, the show was never a bore and rarely slacked in the energy being put out by the band. It is possible that the band held back for the sake of not leaving young Duane in the dust, but that is hardly a criticism. In fact, even fans with 100+ shows under their belt said it didn’t sound much different, and if anything there is something to be said for a bunch of old rockers seizing on a situation to offer a whippersnapper a real learning experience. Wednesday’s show was not the best Widespread Panic performance this writer has seen, but it was definitely satisfactory and the Georgia boys are well worth catching on their fall tour.
Photos by Arthur VanRooy