Widespread Panic in Little Rock, Arkansas

C. Michael Bailey By

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Widespread Panic
Riverfront Amphitheater
Little Rock, Arkansas
July 10, 2007

Almost a month to the day that Little Feat appeared at the Little Rock Riverfront Amphitheater before an enthusiastic crowd of late baby-boomers and their children, a very similarly constituted, yet very different sounding, band appeared at the same venue. On Tuesday, July 10th, Widespread Panic (WP) brought its never-ending road show to River City, smack dead in the middle of the humidly brutal Arkansas Summer.

Often referred to as a "Southern Rock" band because of its Athens, Georgia roots, a home town the band shares with REM and the B-52s, WP boasts a vastly wider curriculum than the typical Southern Rock Bands whose heyday was the mid-1970s to 1980s. While retaining a Southern sensibility like that of the Allman Brothers Band, WP might be thought of as iron lace to the Allmans' bulldozer juggernaut—the same muscle with a different musical mentality.

Officially founded in 1986 by the late Michael Houser and John Bell, who met at the University of Georgia a few years earlier, WP had a deliberately paced take-off, gigging in an ever-expanding circle surrounding their home town. They released their first recording, Space Wrangler, on the independent Landslide Records in 1988, establishing a small but continually growing fan base. In 1991, the band landed a record deal with now-defunct Capricorn Records, releasing the eponymous Widespread Panic.

Playing 250-plus shows per year, maintaining a liberal, Grateful Dead-like taping policy, and displaying a canny knack for peppering their shows with perfect cover tunes, WP built a cult following from the grass roots up. It was into this fan base that numerous Grateful Dead and Phish followers were assimilated following the demise of those bands.

In August 2002, cofounder Michael Houser passed away from pancreatic cancer and was replaced by longtime friend George McConnell from the Oxford, Mississippi band, Beanland. McConnell in turn left WP in 2006, replaced by Jimmy Herring, veteran of Aquarium Rescue Unit, The Allman Brothers Band, and the various Grateful Dead units assembled after Jerry Garcia's death in 1995.

WP's lineup today consists of vocalist and guitarist John Bell, bassist Dave Schools, drummer Todd Nance, percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz percussion, keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann, and guitarist Jimmy Herring. The band recently headlined the 2007 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival held in Manchester, Tennessee annually since 2002, this year's crowd estimated to be 90,000 plus. WP has changed its live show taping policy by making available on their website mp3 recordings of all of their shows, typically unmixed, mere days after the performances. This writer downloaded WP's performance at the aforementioned 2007 Bonnaroo Festival and found audio and performances close and exciting, with covers of Black Sabbath's "Fairies Wear Boots and John Lennon's "Crippled Inside.

This is easily the most aggressive concert-release program of any such act touring today, a band inclined to document the majority of its appearances. The WP system is clearly superior in providing its musical product when compared to The Who, who release basically the same show each time they play, made available exclusively on CD weeks after the performances. The same goes for the Allman Brothers Instant Live recordings, first mixed, then released months following the performance—both examples going at prices that make the WP downloads a bargain.

When WP took the stage at the Riverfront Amphitheater at 8:00 PM, it had just finished raining. Besides the humidity, the temperature was in the high 80s—a sticky Arkansas Summer evening in full bloom. Concertgoers seeking defense against the weather were trying to purchase trash bags to wear from the many bars that populate Little Rock's River Market District. Young free spirits, dressed as I might have 40 years ago, milled about. There was a mix of tie-dye, sun dresses, Birkenstocks, cornrows, patchouli, and hemp—a crowd of a much broader age and social demographic than the one attending Little Feat the month before.

As is their modus operandi, WP took the stage on time (as opposed to the tardiness this writer observed throughout the '70s and '80s) with a few opening remarks from the gregarious John Bell before the band launched into "The Take Out." Like all WP performances, this one was seamless, one song merging into the next with clever and creative transitions. In keeping with WP's elaborate method of setlist choice, the Little Rock Show but vaguely resembled the two previous shows in Austin on July 7th and 8th and the ensuing Chicago shows on July 13-15. Fan favorites "Little Lilly, "Ain't Life Grand," and "Drums all received an adequate workout by this well-seasoned band.

John Bell is a musical enigma. Hardly a great singer, he's an immediately identifiable one with 100% Georgia drawl (making one wonder how Michael Stipe escaped his Decatur twang). He's also an excellent guitarist, rivaling cohort Jimmy Herring—the two sharing Allman-esque dual lead duties during the performance. Bell's lyric writing is an earthy mix of Robert Hunter, Lowell George, and Robbie Robertson (more genuine than the latter—Robertson relying on Levon Helm's delta patois for imparting authenticity to his lyrics). Cover-wise, WP whipped out a 10-minute-plus "Spoonful, not heard in any recent shows. The band introduced in encore Neil Young's "Are You Ready for the Country before closing the show with "All Time Low.

Widespread Panic, better than any comparable "jam band, mixes their concerts, always keeping programming and pacing interesting. The neo-hippie element of the band's look and sound offers something new and exciting to Generation Y and nostalgia to baby boomers. The music is so anti-big label, un-homogenized, not-ready-for-radio, old-school AOR that it is a breath of fresh air. Additionally, the creative selection of covers stimulates the listener to seek out the originals, like Neil Young in this case, or Traffic ("Low Spark of Highheeled Boys") or Warren Zevon ("Lawyers, Guns & Money). Widespread Panic are the keepers of the flame.

Setlist: The Take Out; Walkin' (For Your Love); Little Lilly; Radio Child; Can't Get High; Pickin' Up The Pieces; Tortured Artist; Spoonful; Porch Song; Junior; Hatfield; Time Zones; Old Neighborhood; Sleepy Monkey; Ain't Life Grand; Drums; One Arm Steve; Gimme; Love Tractor; Are You Ready For The Country?; All Time Low.

Personnel: John Bell: guitar, vocals; Dave Schools: bass; Todd Nance: drums, Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz percussion, John "JoJo" Hermann: keyboards; Jimmy Herring: guitar.

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