Widespread Panic rock Boston faithful

A review of Widespread Panic at the Bank of America Pavilion on July 24, 2010

, Staff Writer

Touring in support of their latest release, Dirty Side Down, road warriors Widespread Panic made their way to Boston last Saturday for a show at the Bank of America Pavilion. In what has become expected of them, the band delivered another epic marathon that was high on energy and passion.

Widespread Panic bring a certain energy with them wherever they play. The scene’s not quite the drug-laden jamband scene of Phish, but it’s still a lot more exciting than what most bands seem to bring. The fans are there, and the passion is there in spades, but the overall crowd is a lot more “normalized” than what you’ll find from other bands that run a similar circuit. Listening to Panic’s music, it’s understandable: on a fundamental musical level, their songs are simplistic, kinda same-y. It’s when you put these songs in a live setting that they can truly be judged, however. Some nights, these songs just set a perfect pace for an evening, the band filling out and jamming at key moments, segueing smoothly, and generally feeding off of the crowd’s energy.

And Saturday’s show at the Pavilion was just one of those nights: the weather was perfect, the audience was in a great mood, and the band’s playing was top-notch through the two-set affair. The situation was worrisome as the 7:00 showtime approached, many seats in the pavilion unfilled, those in their seats looking bored and listless. However, as the band took the stage, roughly 20 minutes later, the energy immediately ramped up, and suddenly there wasn’t an empty seat within eyesight.

The show kicked off with “Pigeons”, a darker tune that let vocalist/rhythm guitarist John Bell really show off his singing chops, which sound a lot like AC/DC’s Brian Johnson. The song wove through a number of different texture changes, speeding up and slowing down, with still moments in between solos. It wasn’t too far into the song that the real standout performance of the night began. Lead guitarist Jimmy Herring simply dominated the crowd’s attention whenever he was soloing. A rock and roll guitarist through and through, Herring consistently dropped blazingly-fast runs, of which there were many on this particular night.

“Pigeons” got everyone nice and warmed up, and later on the set continued with a seemingly endless stream of music, the band doing a run of four songs uninterrupted. In the middle of this run, Domingo Ortiz stole the spotlight with a lengthy conga solo that jumped through a number of rhythmic motifs, though all the while keeping the beat of “Bears Gone Fishin’” in the background. From there, it was a simple affair to slow down and allow the band to drop into “Surprise Valley”. The crowd was sufficiently energized by the time this string of songs ended, two segues later. After quick run-throughs of “The Porch Song” and “North”, the first set came to a close.

As is the case with these bands, it was the second set that really brought the improvisational highlights to the forefront. In particular, the middle of the set brought another large block of songs that showcased nearly every member of the band. Herring practically brought the roof of the Pavilion down (again), Johnson laid down a brief but pleasant slide guitar solo, John Hermann was given a large chunk of time to drop an impressive, almost narrative-like keyboard solo, and Ortiz and Todd Nance had a nice percussion duet to set up a segue. Bassist Dave Schools didn’t do very much out of the ordinary, but served as a perfect anchor for both the band and the crowd, keeping harmonic information clearly in everyone’s ears, and offering an apparently endless smile, keeping spirits high (in case anyone needed help).

The second set closed with a bombastic “Ain’t Life Grand”, and after a brief encore break, the band came back with two songs. “Jack” was the first, somewhat forgotten, considering the set that preceded it, and a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns, and Money”, which was almost certainly NOT forgotten. Fans cheered and leapt in the air, pumping their fists and shouting the chorus at the top of their lungs. It was a lively end to a night filled with energy, and which seemed to be over all too soon. Admittedly, the best parts of the night were when Herring was given a substantial length of time to solo as he saw fit, but this isn’t a slight on the rest of the band as much as it is a testament to just how well that man can play the guitar.

Though Widespread Panic’s live show isn’t quite at the level of Phish (the two bands inevitably draw comparisons, even though they’re musically completely different beasts), it’s not without its charms. Any time a group of deeply passionate fans get together, it’s going to be something special, and it’s hard not to be drawn into that kind of wild energy with people screaming, lights flashing, and guitars wailing. When you get all of those things meshing together at once, it quickly becomes apparently why Widespread Panic have as faithful a following as they do.

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