Saturday, February 2, 2013

One Spring Friday in Huntsville (In Unison)

Widespread Panic is the most honest band I've ever heard. They have no pretense, no fabrication, no costume, no cause. You won't find a less rock and roll Rock and Roll band. You also won't find a band that has delivered more quality live performance more consistently over a longer period of time. (Yes, the Dead were the Greatest of the Great at their peak, but compare a '72 Europe show to an '89 stadium gig and tell me if you hear a difference. Then, go to and listen to one of last weeks shows at Punta Cana, and let me know if you hear an aging band fading towards a sad end. I don't.) Panic's musical creed is captured in a single line from "Driving Song": "An honest tune with a lingering lead has taken me this far." Perhaps that's why they've been making music together for 27 years this week. For Georgians and those with any connection to Athens in particular, they are the home team, the local boys who held onto a Dream and rode it to fruition while never forgetting from whence they came. They've always been just popular enough to sustain success without shouldering the burden of pop notoriety.

I've seen Widespread live on maybe 40 occasions, everywhere from a minor league baseball stadium in Charleston to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. To call these times great doesn't begin to do them justice. They were formative experiences of my young life, and then some. (More on that later, particularly a little amphitheater nestled on a hillside in central Alabama.) Cooking pancakes for the family this morning and re-studying the band's 1991 eponymous LP (a/k/a "Mom's Kitchen" or "the green CD"), I was reminded of one of my favorite lines in the vast Panic lexicon. If you love a band, then you have your favorite lyrics. People who love the same band tend to share fondness for the same lyrics. Such is the case with Widespread Panic fans, as exemplified on a balmy Friday ten years past.

April 27, 2001 found the group of marvelous souls affectionately referred to as "Team Panic" (your writer included) at the unlikely destination of the Von Braun Civic Center in Huntsville, Alabama.     There is precisely one thing that could take that group to that spot on that day: a Widepsread Panic show. It was to be a weekend run, with the Huntsville show on a Friday and a Saturday performance to follow just up the road in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (another story altogether, for another day). Those members of Team Panic that were available for duty set sail from Atlanta shortly after lunch on what was a warm spring Friday and drove towards north central Alabama in no particular hurry - windows down, sunglasses on, bootlegs blaring, inter-vehicle rolling groove offs - a max chill Road Trip of unforgettable variety. "And the road goes on forever."

I don't know whether it is coincidence, but with the exception of the traditional Philips Arena NYE run, Widespread always seems to choose venues near grass fields. Grass fields are convenient and pleasant places to throw frisbees, drink beer, and generally tailgate in the setting afternoon soon. This was the case that Friday in Huntsville. It was like first day of summer camp, but for young adults. As a fully- engaged parent and professional, it's hard to internally recreate the liberated feeling of standing around in flip flops, shorts, and T-shirts, slightly sunburned with a small backpack of stuff for an entire weekend; no worries or agenda in the world but making sure we started traversing the distance between our field and the venue so as not to miss the opener. The only stress the situation presented was figuring out which song I would pick for the traditional Round of Beer Pick the Opener Derby. (That contest required rigorous pre-departure study of the previous 3 nights setlists; Panic never plays the same song more than once every three shows there was no mobile web then for pre-kickoff study. I almost always went for "Surprise Valley" if it was out there and won only once that I recall under "blind squirrel gets a nut" circumstances.)

April 27, 2001 was one of those nights when one doesn't walk around so much as he Floats. Time and space become more fluid and the Moment is paramount; the Plan is whatever will lead to increased happiness during the next 30 minutes and the time beyond that is irrelevant. Action takes priority over consequence. Anyone who does not share the common goal or expresses an individual agenda is quickly discarded as a "buzzkill." It's a very circumstantial feeling that can only be experienced during that interval of life before one bears the Weight of Great Responsibility. Nights like that Change you just a little; for the better, I think.

I well remember standing deep in the dark belly of the Von Braun arena on the floor not 100 feet from our heroes as anticipation gave way to motion (in the form of "noodling") during the First Set. Any show that started with "Disco" (my personal favorite version here) and contained a first-set cover of Robert Johnson's legendary "Stop Breaking Down Blues" was all right with me. Then, came the highlight of a highlight night, a single line belted in unison by 10,000 souls illuminated by cigarette lighters who, for three hours out of the history of the World, were the greatest of friends. As a lyricist, John Bell never sought philosophical precision. Once again, there is no central message. Panic's lyrics allow the listener to transpose his thoughts, feelings, and experiences into the song on his own terms. Such is the case with this sacred chestnut:
First I thought of this,
Then I turned to that,
And then I turned a little bit scared.
Well, I feel a little bit easier,
Knowing that you're all here.      
Thought of what? Turned to what? Why? What was frightening? Who is the "you?" Is it the person standing right next to you? The person you knew you'd see later? The person you hoped you'd see again someday? Or, was it all the persons surrounding you who'd chosen to share your Joy at this Time and Place? It's all whatever you want it to be. The answers mattered not on 4/27/01 in Huntsville, Alabama. Whatever meaning the people standing in that building gave those lines, the result was a unified, elated, clattering cheer. It was shared happiness par excellence. Hearing it all during that moment, I could only smile, look upwards, and shake my head ...

Ain't Life Grand?

[Author's note: For those of you where were there or care, to hear the 4/27/01 version of "I'm Not Alone," click here and enjoy what was an excellent show through track 7.]

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