It's Time to Fly!

Widespread Panic

UIC Pavilion - Chicago

October 23, 1999

First Appeared in The Music Box, December 1999, Volume 6, #12

Written by John Metzger


The rapidly expanding jam band scene is full of groups who can extend a musical theme for hours, but few of these can create truly transcendental music and even fewer can actually write songs. You know -- the kind with music that remains interesting beyond two minutes; the kind with music that carries you far away and fills you with a range of emotions; and the kind with lyrics that actually mean something? After all, that's what made the Grateful Dead so special.

Widespread Panic is one of these few who are truly carrying on the Dead's legacy and spirit, and the reason they succeed so brilliantly is that they are not prone to mere mimicry. They bring to the table their own sense of Southern style and musical adventure, and more importantly, they understand the basic fundamentals of improvisational music: That is they use their individual egos to challenge one another on stage while also not allowing individual agendas to get in the way of the music that they are creating.

Performing live may be one thing, but recording an album is something entirely different. It's not a simple task to successfully deliver on both sides of the equation especially for a band that performs a style of music that necessitates the interplay most commonly found in a concert setting. However, Widespread Panic has managed to come through with flying colors. Every album released by this Athens, Georgia-based band has improved upon its predecessor, and their most recent album 'Til the Medicine Takes continues that trend. In addition, the group has become wonderfully adept at creating studio recordings that reach out to commercial radio while still appealing to diehard groove rock fans.

On October 23, Widespread Panic returned to Chicago, making their debut at UIC Pavilion. Right from the start of the concert, the group was at the top of their game. Climb to Safety congealed out of the instrumental jam Disco and built a ladder to the highest heights of the arena, while Walkin' (for Your Love) burst through the ceiling and spiraled outward into the night sky. It was clear that the band was determined to carry the audience on a musical and spiritual journey as they continued the theme of freedom and cerebral voyage. They moved into cruising altitude with a gorgeous rendition of Driving Song and punctuated the end of the first set with a rousing Travelin' Light.

Over the course of the evening, the sound of the individual instruments rode the current of the music, dodging and weaving about one another like fireflies on a midsummer night. The twisting, bending bass line of Dave Schools wrapped itself around the burning lead guitar of Michael Houser, which in turn gave way to the honky-tonk piano and swirling organ playing of John Hermann. Driving the swiftly flowing musical tide was the steady drum beat of Todd Nance and the Tito Puente-inspired groove of percussion from Domingo Ortiz. Over the top of it all were the passionate vocals of John Bell that fell somewhere between gruff backwater blues and devoutly uplifting gospel.

Perhaps the greatest highlight of the concert wasn't really a single song but instead was the entire first half of the second set. Returning to the stage, Widespread Panic set sail on the funky rhythms of Surprise Valley, immediately plunging back into a cosmic vortex of musical exploration. Again, the members of the band pushed each other towards higher heights, collectively coming together into a single-minded entity before allowing the theme to seamlessly fall into a stunning rendition of Papa's Home. In addition, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who were performing across town later that evening, made a guest appearance on a pair of songs that closed out this portion of the show. The Bobby Womack-penned classic It's All Over Now was given a rousing New Orleans' flavor, while the horn section reprised their contribution to Christmas Katie, which appears on Widespread Panic's new album. The end of the song broke open into a lengthy jam that gradually disintegrated into a full-blown space segment. This too gave way to a dizzying light show and the hypnotic rhythms of the percussionists.

The Meters, led by the swirling organ playing of Art Neville, opened the concert with a 40-minute set. Unfortunately, the band just couldn't quite get it together. They delivered their songs with a professional air that also seemed somewhat disjointed. Just as they began to carry the music into some interesting musical territory, they quickly pulled back and moved onward to the next tune. Nevertheless, their funky delivery of classic compositions like Hey Pocky Way and Fire on the Bayou served to get the audience dancing and more than warmed up for endlessly-improving Widespread Panic.

'Til the Medicine Takes is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright 1999 The Music Box