I was a little nervous heading out to the Widespread Panic show in Asheville last weekend. I wasn't sure what to expect from the show, or from the band’s legion of followers, some of whom have been devoted fans for more than 20 years. I knew Panic’s music, but I'd never been to see the band live (bad Ashevillian), and I was curious about what exactly inspires people to drop everything and follow these ordinary-looking, middle-aged guys around the country.
I was prepared to be kind of bored. I was ready to be annoyed by a horde of rabid hippies flinging their organic underpants at the stage. I expected to have to fight the temptation to run from the floor and listen from a less populous place in the corridor. You know what they say about expectations, though.
This was less of a huge gathering of fans than it was a bunch of friends chilling out together, listening to their favorite band. Despite the way we were packed onto the floor, everyone seemed relaxed and considerate. There was still, of course, Confused Bathroom Guy, totally amazed by the two women's room signs on the same side of the venue, and unable to understand that the men's rooms were on the other side. There were the drunk guys who seemed fascinated by my hair and wanted to make really, really sure I knew it, and the inevitable girls who were more drunk on the idea of looking drunk than on any actual spirits. These were the exceptions though, and they were more amusing and less obnoxious than when I've encountered them at other shows. Everyone there just seemed so freaking happy to be there, and that was nice.
If I wasn't prepared for the crowd to be so laid-back, I was even less prepared to be impressed by the show itself.
This is a band with genuine talent, and a steady energy that makes it impossible not to appreciate who they are. Widespread Panic isn’t shy about showing its Southern roots; it's no surprise that these guys started out in Athens, Ga. They aren't obnoxious about it, though. The vocals are authentic and honest, without any of the grating, put-on gosh-darn-country-Southern-twang that makes me want to kick people like Steve Earle in the face. John Bell isn't out to impress anyone, and that makes him all the more impressive to hear live.
There were, of course, the requisite guitar solos, and they provided a nice interlude during which your mind could wander for a minute or 20. I've never been a big fan of the extended guitar solo, but these were tasteful, the crowd seemed to love them, and, unlike many lesser-skilled bands out there, Widespread Panic knows how to cut it off before you're ready to jump the barrier and start unplugging the amps.
While every member of the band has obvious skill, and their talents come together to form one of the most cohesive live acts I've ever seen, bassist Dave Schools is the one who knocked me off my feet. That guy can throw out a subtle funk line with the kind of finesse that should make 95-percent of the aspiring bassists out there throw down their instruments and go home. I won't even try to describe the overall sound, with the melodic, funky bass and the drums that run the course from hard rock to almost tribal-sounding; all I can say is that it works, and it works well. And just when I thought I had heard enough and I knew what these guys were about, The Steep Canyon Rangers' Nicky Sanders joined Widespread Panic on stage. Together they performed some hauntingly lovely songs, and I was sold. This is the kind of music that makes time completely irrelevant, and Widespread Panic finally makes sense.
And here's more about the show from the Panic fans themselves: