Widespread Panic cap off 2013 Fall Tour in Syracuse and New York City

In the Northeast, we are a bit spoiled with more than our share of regularly touring bands to see on a frequent basis. Phish and moe. play in these parts plenty, and with all the festivals, we get to see a wide selection of bands from across the country, some of whom tour each year to satiate their fan’s musical needs. There is one band, however, that doesn’t visit nearly as often as some would like, and aside from a sit-in friendly performance at Mountain Jam in June, hasn’t played Upstate New York since 2008 and New York City since 2011.

Widespread Panic, the yang to Phish’s yin in the jamband world, are more at home in other parts of the country than the Northeast, as much of their following derives from the Southeast, Mountain West and Midwest, similar to Phish having a base in the Northeast with strong followings throughout the rest of the country. The only difference is that Phish doesn’t play the Southeast quite often, akin to Widespread not giving the Northeast as much love on a regular basis. The bands are opposite sides of the same coin: Phish playing more jazz-based improvisation from their songs, while Panic take a blues/rock detour from their compositions and covers. But both bands have had historic years in 2013, and at nearly the same age, they are reaching yet another peak in their careers. While both have been beset by events that could have spelled the end for other bands, they pushed through and found their sound once again, with audiences steadfast and committed to the group all the while.

It’s an easy connection to make between the two, especially if you’re a fan of both bands. The parallels exist and can be found as far back as their origins on college campuses on either end of the eastern seaboard, as well as their appearances on H.O.R.D.E. tour back in the early 1990s. And while Phish and Panic have their distinct attributes, they make for a knockout 1-2 punch that made the autumn in New York and the Northeast stand tall above any other year in recent memory.

Starting in Syracuse on November 14th, Widespread Panic returned to the Landmark Theatre for the first time since November 2001. With a packed crowd and impressive light and visual show, curious and avid fans alike filled downtown Syracuse and the 85 year-old venue for a night of southern blues and jams. Three strong rockers open the show – “Tall Boy,” “Pigeons” and “Who do you Belong to?,” setting the stage for the night, one where the audience found all the reason to wonder why it took this band 12 years to play the historic Landmark Theater once again.

“You Should Be Glad,” one of the band’s new songs when they returned from hiatus in 2005, typically crosses the 10 minute threshold, but at 18 minutes, this one fell into a groove quickly and time passed by unknowingly, a hallmark of how easy it is to fall into the rocking jams the sextet produces. The first set was capped by an early Panic tune, “Holden Oversoul,” and retained the rocking blues base that Widespread is known for.

“Up All Night,” an interesting choice to start off the second set, was extended by guitarist Jimmy Herring before the second set of lyrics could be sung by John Bell. “North,” originally by friend of Panic, Jerry Joseph, set the stage for a jam that took off just as “North” dipped towards completion, but then was off and running on a standalone jam that eventually moved into “Help Me,” a new cover in their extensive catalog, played for only the first time since this past Halloween. The Sonny Boy Williamson II tune, a slow creeping blues number, recalled a mellow “Rollin and Tumblin” meets “Smokestack Lightning,” two songs that could easily fit into the band’s setlist on any given night, in one form or another.

The metal-lite “Flicker” segued into the deck of 52 ballad “Jack,” which provided a buffer between “Papa’s Home,” erupting with a short drums segment from Todd Nance and Sunny Ortiz in between. Quite powerful and emotional were “I’m Not Alone” and “Radio Child,” which served as more than near-end of set placements; they were a tribute to fan Brian Lee, who passed away earlier that day. Having run Radiochild.org, a site with full length videos of Widespread Panic shows, Brian was a member of the broader online Panic community and for the band to pay tribute to a fallen fan was a true testament to the band’s connection to their following.

An encore of Beanland’s “1 x 1” and the James Taylor tune “Knockin’ Round the Zoo” followed John Bell’s greeting of the crowd before the encore, saying “Thank you. Hopefully it will not be another 12 years before we come back and visit you again,” which elicited great cheers from the audience. As someone who was there on 11/6/01, let’s hope there are more shows for the Northeast in store in 2014 and beyond.

Set 1: Tall Boy, Pigeons, Who Do You Belong To?, True To My Nature, The Last Straw > You Got Yours, You Should Be Glad, Sleeping Man, Trouble, Holden Oversoul

Set 2: Up All Night, North > Help Me, Better Off, Crazy, Flicker > Jack > Papa’s Home > Drums > Papa’s Home, I’m Not Alone, Radio Child, Imitation Leather Shoes

Encore: 1×1, Knockin’ Round The Zoo

Download the Syracuse show from Etree

Two days later, following an equally rare trip to Boston, Widespread Panic closed out their tour in the Theater at Madison Square Garden to a packed house of revelers who knew fair well that this year, and tour in particular, was one not to miss. What is it about jambands and Fall Tours that makes them so unforgettably good and painful to skip?

The stage was set with an opener of “Diner,” one of the true jam vehicles in their repertoire. “Drinking Muddy Water,” originally by The Yardbirds, segued neatly from “Diner,” making way for the “Rollin and Tumblin”-esque early rock/blues infusion from the British supergroup. Jimmy Herring took the reins to channel Clapton, Page and Beck amid Todd Nance’s lead-the-way drumming. “Barstools and Dreamers,” complete with a ‘Satisfied’ rap, flipped the script and segued strongly into “Machine.” Then the surprise of the night, Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” closed the set with JB on vocals and Herring and Schools shredding the tune while a spastic cartoon cricket danced on the skrim behind Nance. Another of the Halloween debut covers, “Ace of Spades” blew the crowd away, leading JB to quip “Be right back with our acoustic set.”

But there would be none of that in the second set. Instead, a venue that has seen its share of Boxing cards was given a roundhouse with “Protein Drink > Sewing Machine,” two Vic Chesnutt tunes that have added a serious hard rock edge to Widespread Panic since they became a regular part of the rotation a few years ago. After “Saint Ex” and “Pilgrims” mellowed the vibe from the set openers, a tasty sandwich took over for a solid 40 minutes. “Driving Song > Ride me High > Mercy > Bust it Big > Driving Song” found itself wandering from JJ Cale to soulful Panic into a usual treat while in the Big Apple, “Bust it Big,” featuring the line “Rosemary’s Baby is a New York City kid,” from the sharp vocals of the lone New York City kid in the band, JoJo Hermann. Capped off with “Chilly Water,” the show ended on a high note, as nearly all Panic shows do, rocked out and draining every available drop of energy from the musicians.

The encore was a true treat as well, starting with John Bell softly singing Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” which first appeared on the 2012 Wood Tour and finds an occasional yet perfect placement in the encore slot. “Surprise Valley” followed to give another dose of southern rock to the audience, while a perfect tour-closing number, “End of Show,” found JB on his mandolin to cap the night and a tour for the books.

Now can we make these Northeast runs a yearly thing?

Set 1: Diner > Drinking Muddy Water, Greta > Love Tractor, Can’t Get High, Gradle, Thought Sausage > Barstools and Dreamers* > Machine, Ace of Spades

Set 2: Protein Drink > Sewing Machine, Saint Ex > Pilgrims, Driving Song > Ride Me High > Mercy > Bust It Big > Driving Song, Chilly Water

Encore: Many Rivers to Cross, Surprise Valley, End of the Show

* with ‘Satisfied’ rap

Download the New York City show from Etree

Landmark TheatreMadison Square GardenMSGNYCWidespread PanicWSMFP