The second of Artpark’s Tuesdays in the Park concert series – Widespread Panic – ended dramatically and early, with little to no panic. The show was to be two solid sets. Mother Nature had other plans.
As the last strains of the first set’s ending tune hung in the air the weather shifted. Rain that had been threatening for a few hours began plopping down on thousands of dancing and twirling audience members.
Studying the band’s set list one has to wonder if Widespread Panic indeed brought the deluge upon themselves – and their ardent fans. The set list, culled from the Athens, Ga.-based jam band’s nearly three decade-long career, conjured (in their oft-disjointed lyrical fashion) the majestic power of Nature, the ability of a man to create rain for a drought-ravaged city (L.A.), and the power of wind.
With no opening act, Widespread Panic hit the Artpark stage at 6:36 p.m. Heeding bummer meteorological predictions, roadies, minutes before the set started, wrapped amps and sound boards in thick plastic securely anchored with duct tape.
John Bell, ostensible paterfamilias of the outfit, led his five bandmates through the mood-setting “A of D” instrumental overture before plunging into “Surprise Valley.” The song is all about water and wind. “Winds whisper the trees, Mother talkin’ the water’s spirit moves, it moves through all things.”
The set’s next song, “Hatfield,” another watery opus, tells the story of a man charged with the task of creating much-needed rain for a parched Los Angeles. “Hatfield you made rain for L.A./We’ve got ten grand/ For you to go cook us some rain.”
The band, in prime form, was exquisite in their layering of miniature funk, prog and mountain/Appalachian riff outbursts. As many bands have stated from area stages, the energy and enthusiasm of a Buffalo crowd is as electrifying as lightning (which would later streak the sky dramatically that night). The sky was ever-darkening, and the band played on.
“Henry Parsons Died,” another of their narratives, is the story of a Southern character steeped in eccentricity. Guitarist Jimmy Herring was on fire during this tune, lurking under his ballcap as bandmates created a thick primal landscape.
“Little Kin,” with Bell vocals approaching the deconstructed abrasion of Tom Waits, led into “Radio Child” which quickly melted into two-stepping “Casa del Grillo.” From there it was lady-pleasing “Greta” with delighted women twirling on the lawn. More ominous lyrics: “Mother Nature’s gone to war, she’s in a fighting mood.”
A couple from New Orleans, Cori Nelson and Hiking Bird, was ecstatic to hear this tune. The couple, who got engaged at a Widespread Panic show in 2006, has seen the band “almost 200 times.” When they do marry, Cori said, their first dance will be to “Genesis” – by Hot Tuna but oft-covered by the band.
The set ended with homage to the band’s improvising forebears, Grateful Dead, with “Cream Puff War” – another dark thematic choice.
“We’ll be right back, folks!” called Bell from the stage. The dark gray clouds rolled in and the crowd was urged by an announcer moments later to head “down the red brick road to the theater or to your cars.
“We’ll resume as soon as it’s safe,” Bell continued. This reviewer took shelter with sound guys in the middle of the lawn, assisting in keeping the tent and its side panels upright.
One of the guys huddled in the tent, taper Z-Man, a longtime friend of the band, had driven eight hours from Manhattan to tape the show. Sad that he had only half a concert to upload to the sites panicstream.com and bt.etree.org, he consoled himself with the fact that he was going to hit the band’s three-night stint at Red Rocks in Colorado later this month.
Waiting for a rain break I trekked uphill to the parking lot, surrounded by soggy fans. One guy, soaked in his black tank top and shorts, began yelling. In a few seconds it was clear that his yells were not of frustration at the demi-gig. “Thank you for a good short show! We love you,” he yelled loud enough for the band, still parked backstage in their tour bus, to hear.