Widespread Panic plays a two to three night stand every New Year’s Eve. For fans, these are some of the most anticipated shows of the year, filled with enthusiastic playing, rare covers and dynamic guests. For years, the band hosted these annual get togethers at the Phillips Arena in their home state of Georgia. Conflicting arrangements with the Atlanta Thrashers led to the first Denver New Year’s run in 2008, a two night stand that devastated alcohol sales records for the venue and led to a big push for Panic to make Colorado a regular stop for the holiday shows. Rumor now has it that the Pepsi Center and the Phillips Arena will alternate hosting duties.
Of course, rumors at jam band concerts are prevalent and frequently without merit. In addition to the above mentioned rumor, I overhead, just as I had in 2008, numerous discussions about the impending end of Panic tour, as well as the various drug habits of various band members, attested to by people who claim to know people who claim to have been in a room with somebody somewhere. Ultimately, these stories serve only to pass the time until the lights go down.
My wife and I elected to make the two night concert on occasion for a Denver vacation, dropping our kids off with my parents and checking ourselves into a downtown hotel, thus eliminating the need to deal with cabs, drunk drivers and what turned out to be some of the slickest roads yet of the Colorado winter. We find that we rarely enjoy our hometown the way that we emerge ourselves into a town that we are visiting for a few days. We enjoyed having an excuse to walk around downtown, even through the single digit temperatures and managed to eat our way through the city as well.
After enjoying a late lunch at Park and Company, the redesign of the Denver landmark Bump and Grind orchestrated by the burger geniuses of Park Burger and an early dinner at Troy Guard’s uber-hip TAG in Larimer Square, we hailed a rickshaw to take us the 1 mile to the Pepsi Center. Had Denver’s 55 degree winter managed to wait another two days, we probably would have walked but, instead, we were happy to have a wool blanket over our knees and a plastic sheet over our faces to keep the wind out. Until we realized that we were behind a bicyclist who was dragging us across ice covered roads and that if a car could not stop for us, we would be on the wrong side of momentum.
“This is either a brilliant idea or a horrible one.”
More brilliant than horrible so it turned out. We met up with friends of friends at a bar in the lot of the Pepsi Center, conveniently turned into Panic central with a blaring soundtrack of Panic albums and a bar overflowing with long hair, beards and copious amounts of booze. We sold our extra tickets and headed across the street just in time to catch the second half of G. Love and Special Sauce, the opening act.
I am no huge fan of G. Love and was ambivalent about their selection as an opener for Widespread Panic. We caught the second half of their 90 minute opening set and I was impressed. Their stripped down four person sound is reminiscent of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion as is their list of influencing styles – blues, punk, rock and hip hop. Highlights included “Cold Beverages” and “Booty Call” which bled seamlessly with the Beatles’ “Why don’t we do it in the road?”
During intermission, Erin and I talked about the random serendipity of Panic shows, how, frequently, at outdoor venues where general admission is the norm, we run into random friends circulating through the venue. We wondered, with reserved seats, how we might make those same connections. We wondered, specifically, about Hope, a close friend of ours and one of Erin’s sister’s best friends. As the lights came down, three young women took the seats next to our. One of these, was, of course, Hope.
Like me, she bought her tickets through the Panic pre-sale. Randomly, we got adjacent seats. Many phone calls and texts to Erin’s sister followed with the general theme of “wish you were here.”
Panic announced their presence with authority, opening with a cover of Tom Waits’ “Going Out West.” As they had in 2008, they owned the first set of the two nights, playing with an obvious enthusiasm but also sounding tight, much tighter than they had sounded at Red Rocks earlier in the year, an indication that either they had been practicing or that they are able to somehow summon cohesion through the emotion of their playing. Song after song in the first set added to the momentum, building into a dance party of epic proportions: Big Wooly Mammoth>Henry Parsons Died>Surprise Valley and then, a monster surprise with a first set “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” that basically swept the collective leg of the Pepsi Center.
I was finally able to rip myself away from my seat during Dirty Side Down to go take care of business (restroom, beer, etc.) but found myself singing along with “I’m Not Alone” as I ran back down to reconnect with Erin. I think “I’m Not Alone” might be the best ballad in the Panic repertoire and I had not heard it at a show in over ten years. Returning to our seats with two 24 ounce Stellas (I drank four of these over the course of the evening– yes that is 96 ounces of Danish beer), I witnessed the resumed dance party with “Good People”, “Greta” and “Fishwater.” The first set clocked in at over 95 minutes of music and is easily among the top five sets I’ve ever seen.
Set break found us hanging out, calling Keri again and wondering at our seats. We were three rows off the floor, at eye level with Jon Bell, clearly able to see every move. In addition, the sound at the Pepsi Center is focused. I could hear every note of every instrument clearly, pristinely.
The second set opened with monstrous “Chilly Water” sandwiched between “Saint Ex.” I’ve witnessed a lot of water being thrown around in my day but have never been drenched like this before. The girl in front of me literally threw her bottle of water behind her head, essentially dumping the entire contents on my head. She turned around, looked at me and said “You’re welcome.”
“Thanks,” I said, ahem, dryly.
One of the things that I most appreciate about the community of live music is the introduction of new, or new to me, artists that comes about through participation therein. Widespread Panic is immersed in live music, as they should be. It is their passion and their business. Dave Schools reportedly has over 18,000 hours of music on his i-pod. They know more than I ever will. But they bring me into that knowledge and expand my horizons through osmosis.
Five days ago, I knew little about David Bromberg. As he took the stage with Panic, I could tell only that he looked like a very tall cross between Elliott Gould and Jerry Garcia. He joined Panic for one of the more unusual “Old Neighborhood”s I have ever heard, Bromberg rapping over School’s funky baseline and really only the guitar lick to point out that the song is in tact at all. After a brief pause, during which DJ Logic’s turntable kit was set up next to School’s, the now eight player combo launched into “Use Me” with JB and Bromberg trading lines and the entire stage launching like a funk train over the audience.
Bromberg left the stage but Logic remained for “Party at Your Mama’s House,” “You Should Be Glad” and the funkiest drums ever. Schools rejoined the rhythm section for the end of drums. The lights turned green and blue as he laid down the opener to “Rock” and my old, tired frame sat and watched, feeling like a “rock on its belly lying on the bottom of a pool.”
But as JB, JoJo and Jimmy returned, I stood and they drove me forward, staying on point through “Rock”, “Red Hot Mama” and “Pigeons.” Somehow, I found the energy to keep up as Panic, just as they had in 2008, ignited the 12/30 show.
After the encore, we said goodbye to Hope and her friends and walked the 15 minutes through staggering cold back to the Westin, huddled like emperor penguins against the wind and the arctic chill. We stayed up another 45 minutes, too wired to sleep, adults talking about minor things, happy to be alive and free.
The morning, however, found us stupid and hungover. We slept until 10 and then struggled out of bed, calling my mom and dad to check on the kids before shuttling the two frozen blocks to the Four Seasons for breakfast, which proved to have been one of the smartest moves of the entire weekend.
“If you wait just a moment, I can get you a spot in front of the fireplace,” the hostess said.
Service is the calling card of the Four Seasons for a reason. I had to take a phone call shortly after ordering a cappuccino and excused myself to the hotel lobby for several minutes. Returning to the table, I found that my cappuccino had been dropped and then removed and discarded when the waiter noticed I was not around to enjoy it. He diligently waited for me to return and then made me a fresh one.
Breakfast arrived – two over easy eggs with house made chicken sausage served over two perfect circles of the softest, moistest hash browns ever. The world started to coalesce.
Afterward, we drove to the Museum of Contemporary Art and saw an exhibit on unverified Russian modern art before taking lunch to our children and my parents. We spent the afternoon lounging on my parents’ floor, playing with my four year old daughter and one year old son until my daughter asked when we would be leaving. I think she didn’t like us horning in on her private Nadi time.
Back at the hotel, I researched David Bromberg. Despite considering myself musically educated, I find reminders consistently of how big the world is and how little I truly know. Here is a man who is a folk music legend, having played with George Harrison, Jorma Kaukonen, Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan among many others. It took Widespread Panic to introduce me to him.
He also wrote the song “Sharon” which has become one of the rarities of Panic tour, a song that is played perhaps once or twice a year out of 60 odd tour dates, a long rambling story about a visit to a dancing girl tent at a carnival, punctuated by the shouted chorus:
“Sharon! What do you do to these men?
The same rowdy crowd that was here last night is back again.”
Which, for people who don’t mind seeing a band on back-to-back nights, is something of a rallying cry.
According to Bromberg’s own website, he hadn’t played a date since early December. It suddenly seemed to be very likely that he would sit in again on New Year’s Eve and that we would be treated to one of the biggest “Sharon”s ever. The thought made us giddy. We hadn’t seen the song since the Fillmore run in 2005 and my wife had been chasing it ever since. Every Panic run we go to, she insists that they will play it. This time, it appeared, she would be right.
A quick nap and a shower later and we met our crew at Oceanaire for dinner. We failed, however, to tell our waiter that we needed to be out the door at a certain time. By 9:30, I was antsy and we informed our waiter that we needed to go. We shortly packed up, were out the door and down the street and the Pepsi Center seemed so far away. We hailed a cab (unheard of in Denver on New Year’s Eve) who incredulously took us the five blocks, complaining the whole time about how illegal it was for him to have six passengers. Finally dropping us off, I asked him what we owed him.
“Whatever, dude…I don’t know.”
We threw some bills at him and ran into the Pepsi Center to hear Widespread Panic playing within. For the first time in 70 shows, I missed the beginning. Bummer. Oh well. Dinner with friends is a good excuse.
We tried to accompany our friends to their seats but the staff at the Pepsi Center was not yet tired enough to give up their vigilance so we trucked off to our seats, stage left and 18 rows above the band. We caught the tail end of the very short first set, watching “When You Coming Home”, “Driving Song” and “Who Do you Belong To?”
While our seats were great, this was New Year’s Eve and we really wanted to be near our friends so we worked our way through the bowl of the Pepsi Center, scooping up Paul on the way and apologizing to countless people before we landed up standing next to Pete, Dana, Keith and Kelly
The venue was considerably more crowded on New Year’s Eve than it had been the night before. We stashed our coats hopefully behind dancing strangers and piled into vacant seats. By the time we found our friends, the brief set break had ended and Panic was striking up the opening licks to “Holden Oversoul.” The remainder of the show was something of an exercise in human Tetris as we rearranged our standing complement to adjust to the comings and goings of others in our section. We borrowed ticket stubs to run up for bathroom and beer breaks and wondered, generally, why this wasn’t just a GA show. (Of course, showing up as late as we had, the reserved seats had saved our ass, but that was forgotten by now)
The first and second sets of New Years’ Eve were really more like one set with a very brief stretching break between. Combined they added up to 85 minutes of music, ten minutes shorter than the first set of December 30. In general, it seemed as if the band was structuring the show in a very contrived manor. On December 31, 2008, Panic had played a solid New Year’s Eve show but many, myself included, had been disappointed by the lack of three sets, a New Year’s tradition it seemed at shows at the Phillips Arena. Many had vocalized their disappointment on the ubiquitous message boards of the interwebs.
Panic had posted on its Facebook page a few days earlier that the December 31 show would be three sets. In addition, the band had to be on stage at midnight. In fact, they had to start their third set precisely at midnight. These time constraints are inherently antithetical to what an improvisational band does. The result: a 35 minute first set and a 50 minute second set.
But that did little to temper the quality of the music. The second set proved to be a real rock show with “North” leading into “Blackout Blues” accompanied by G. Love on harmonica. Dave Schools then took over with a blistering “Blight.” “Bust it Big,” “Pleas” and “Mr. Soul” closed out the second set, just half an hour before midnight.
The night flew by. The set break between the second and third just a blur before Gary Vereen took the stage and threw down an emotional recap of Panic’ “twenty one year love affair with the Mile High State” before Panic blew into “Disco and Tall Boy” to open 2011.
As “Tall Boy” still lingered in our ears, JB announced David Bromberg once again. The very tall legend took his place between JB and Jimmy as Todd rolled out the drum line to Sharon. Bromberg took the lead vocals and JB played supporting rolls as the band took us inside the carnival, into the tent where Sharon did things that according to Bromberg, “were like making love to that part of that stage. It was disgusting. I loved it.”
This fifteen-minute monster of a Sharon was the focal point of the show and may be the seminal version of the tune, much like Panic’s 2000 performance of “Genesis” with Jorma is the version against which all other “Genesis” will be compared.
Bromberg hung out for a final song with the band, “Tongue Shuffle in A,” a first time play for Panic before he retired to the buffet behind the stage. Panic carried on with a greatest hits compilation to round out the third set: “Imitation Leather Shows,” “Love Tractor,” “Postcard,” “Pilgrims”, “Tie Your Shoes”, “End of the Show” and “Ain’t Life Grand.”
Several of our friends ninja rolled out the door in the middle of the third set to catch cabs before the post show madness. They missed the amazing encore: “Blue Indian,” followed by Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, a song I have personally been chasing for over 15 years and finally “Action Man” to close out the run.
In general, there is no other place I would have liked to have been this New Year’s Eve. As our children grow older, I know that I will prefer to be with them, to celebrate the progression of time, to cherish the year past and look forward to the year before but for now, I think I will enjoy the opportunity to be a child myself.