Friday, September 15, 2006

A Non-Panic Fan’s Perspective on 9-14-06

Goaded by many of my friends and somewhat allured by the prospect of hearing Jimmy Herring on the Radio City Stage, I decided to press my luck and try for a freebie last night. I wound up biting early and took a ten dollar floor seat, which was fine by me.

I should preface what I have to say by admitting that I am anything but a Panic fan. Frankly, I don’t get this band, and I don’t understand the obsession with them. Any time someone has played a show for me, I’ve been bored. I’ve only seen them live once, and that was Night One of the first Bonnaroo, a show that bored me so much that I chose to sleep on the ground rather than continue listening. (I’m told the second night’s show, which I avoided, was the cat’s ass, but I have yet to hear that recording.) I nearly caught the Central Park show a few years ago, but when I asked friends about it afterwards, they all said, “It wasn’t that great…BUT IT WAS PANIC, MAN!!!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people describe Panic shows this way, and I don’t understand how people can get excited about mediocrity. Perhaps I needed to have spent significant time in a college frat or somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line in order to unlock this mystery.

So why even bother giving this band a shot? Well, everyone still raves about them, so I wanted to give them a chance. Plus, there have been times when I’ve wandered through a parking lot to discover some great jam on some random boombox, only to learn that the recording was from a Widespread Panic show. Thus, this band had to capable of some good stuff. Finally, I knew the ticket would cost next to nothing, so there would be minimal risk.

Before the show started, I moved from my seat, Jimmy-side in row L all the way down to the edge of the front section of the orchestra, where my progress was impeded by ushers and stanchions. I befriended a very friendly and soon-to-be-wealthy software engineer from Boulder named Diana, who was excited about the prospect of her company being acquired. She was in NYC for work purposes, and when I started asking her why she liked Panic, she let loose into a mile-a-minute rambling speech about how the band changed her life and affected her like no other. She was gushing on and on about Panic, but as soon as the house lights came down, she stopped, turned on a dime and told me point-blank, “I’m gonna need you to move because I need room to dance.” No problem. I backed up in the aisle so that I was slightly behind her seat. Then she said, “No. That’s not enough. I need more room than that.”

She wasn’t lying, as she began flailing herself across the aisle. Eventually, the usher let her have her own row (it wasn’t very crowded), so no one would get injured. I looked dumbfounded at her and the other people who were caught in the midst of orgasmic glee, and I thought, “This must be what it’s like for an outsider to go to a Phish show…minus the music-nerd intricacy and inside jokes…and without the disproportionate number of Jews.”

It was here where I think I began to understand some of the charm of Panic: It doesn’t necessarily matter what’s happening on stage because the crowd just wants to have a good fuckin’ time. The Bud Lite begins to flow and strangers make eye contact and smile. The tunes are familiar and people cheer songs they recognize, regardless of how they are played. It’s a scenario that’s true for so many bands, but the party element seems to be ramped up a few notches at a Panic show.

Oh, and what’s with the overabundance of blond-haired blue-eyed women? For a minute there, I thought I was in a Leni Riefenstahl film.

The sound from my vantage point was nestled somewhere between lousy and awful. Everyone in the band was playing loud, REAL LOUD—well, everyone that is except Jimmy Herring, who was barely audible for the first couple of tunes. I know he’s the new guy, but he’s an established musician and shouldn’t be treated like Vince Welnick. Eventually, he was a little more present in the mix.

Of course, the volume was still an issue. The real problem was the non-stop banging from nearly every instrumentalist, aside from Herring. Everyone seemed to be pounding their drum, keyboard, bass, or guitar, and there were no dynamics whatsoever. That was a little disappointing to me because the hallmark of a good band is its ability to vary the volume, but playing soft and intense did not seem to be Panic’s strong suit. They could probably learn a few lessons from Gov’t Mule in this department.

The pounding and the banging was boring me silly. That’s when I realized that I’m just not crazy about Panic’s songs. Based on recognition from other setlists, it seemed as though they trotted out a lot of their most popular numbers, but only about three or four tunes seemed original and interesting to me. This was compounded by the fact that Jimmy Herring’s solos were being crushed by the rest of the band. I found John Keane’s guitar contributions to be little more than window dressing, and unnecessary window dressing, at that. The sound was already a big pile of mush, and they didn’t need any more people on stage.

At setbreak, I considered leaving, but I wanted to give the band one final shot.

Set Two came from a different band. They actually jammed. At times, they even got quiet. The players listened to and fed off of one another. I liked this version of Panic a thousand times better than the migraine headache of the first set. While there were no jams that reached transcendental status, there were little peaks, and when they chose to fly without a net, the band held my interest. The second set definitely redeemed them, although, admittedly, I can only describe what I heard as enjoyable, at best. This morning, I looked online and saw superlatives being tossed around like a black stripper in a Duke frathouse, and I just don’t get it. As far as I can tell, people seem to be more in love with the familiarity of Panic’s music than its originality, or lack thereof.

My guess is that Panic is an unwitting nostalgia act for many of their fans. This is the music and the bevy of good times they remember from their youth. Everyone wants to re-visit those days in hopes of capturing lightening in a bottle, but if you weren’t on board in the formative years, I can’t see how anyone would listen to last night’s show and then quit their day job to sell molly on tour.

After seeing this show, there are two questions I have for Panic fans:

1) Do you really think that Sunny adds anything to this band besides dead weight?

Every time I’d turn around, he’d be doing his best to drag the tempo into a sludge pit, often fighting against Schools’ best effort to get the show moving. There were also times where he was just not on the beat, which is inexcusable for any professional musician, let alone a percussionist. And when it comes to needless banging, he was the worst offender. He was incessantly crushing a cymbal, pounding the crap out of it on every single downbeat, creating an annoyingly monotonous counterpoint to Nance’s work on the kit. Was last night an aberration, is he always this bad, or is this off-tempo banging part of the allure of Panic?

2) People rave about Widespread Panic having the best transitions between songs, transitions that supposedly surpass that of the Grateful Dead, Phish, Phil Lesh & Friends, etc. Did last night provide any evidence of these hallowed transitions?

If so, do think that slowing the tempo down until someone starts the riff for the next song should be considered impressive?

On the whole, this show was worth ten bucks, but I wouldn’t pay much more than that. That’s gonna piss off a lot of a lot of people, but I just don’t think they played anything that was truly noteworthy. In the second set, the highlights were there but the jaw-dropping moments were AWOL. If you don’t have a history with this band, you don’t have the nostalgia for their music. Without nostalgia, there’s not much to get excited about here, aside from a Herring solo or two. Perhaps that will change as Jimmy gets integrated into the band, but until then, I’ll stay at home.