In the Great Year of Our Jam 1997, Widespread Panic was one of several bands that had made it. Not in any traditional sense, mind you, but in the way that an improvisational outfit, a jamband as the Good Doctor Budnick decreed, was able to hit the Big Time. And, of course, that meant that said band did it by touring until one either ran out of money, died, or go back, Jack, do it again, wheel turnin’ round and round. Well, Panic was solidly in the latter spot by ’97.
And so the wheels of time turn round and round to that era when these sorts of jamband escapades were a dime a dozen. But they were also very new, energetic, and full of a Jack Kerouac-like mythical grasp of wonder and adventure out on the great wide open road. Once again, it is the latter quality that is in dynamic abundance here. Panic hits a Canadian club, fourth night of the tour, September 8th, 1997, and there is absolutely no reason for them to play a transcendent show at this venue. Hell, they could have wanked on variations of Bach’s “Prelude” for two hours, and walked away with their check.
But they didn’t, and that is what is critical to remember about jambands in their heyday—whether one talks about some of the landmark tours like ‘Phish Destroys America,’ or the genre as a whole. You never knew when you were going to get that life-changing event. In Montreal, home of hockey, the Grand Prix, and an often incomprehensible expatriate French-speaking populace, a southern band from Athens, Georgia kicked the door down, met an audience that was ready for them, and tore through a legendary 24-song set.
The first trio of the opening set are as indescribably thrilling as one could ask for—the stout “Heroes ,” an incendiary “Barstools and Dreamers,” and J.J. Cale’s smokin’ “Travelin’ Light”—which sets such a high standard that one thinks that the whole Panic wad has already been shot. The late Michael Houser is playing leads as if his arms are being pulled from some unseen cosmic force, John Bell rips through his vocals, and the entire rhythm section, especially Dave Schools, is laying down a firm bottom groove.
Ahhh… but it gets better. The pace slows down a bit, strolling with controlled restraint through “Greta” into “The Last Straw,” before settling into a dynamic quartet to close the set. “Holden Oversoul” is rigorous and passionate, while “Can’t Get High” mourns the loss of love, but is such a beautiful buzz, before the surreal “Four Cornered Room” segues into an intense, liquid-flowing version of “Worry.” The Canadian club crowd, to be polite, is going apeshit at this point, and you wonder if Panic is even going to get to take a break.
Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me” opens set two, and it’s an ingenious choice, just as each original and cover seems to be on this September 1997 evening. “Rebirtha” hovers near the precipice in a tight 10-minute reading before eventually finding its way into a raucous “Space Wrangler.” Which is all rowdy and fine and true as these things go, but the real story enfolds when the band finds its way into a “Just Kissed My Baby > Papa’s Home >Bear’s Gone Fishin’ Jam” that isn’t simply sublime, it’s a great mind movie, too.
After a no-nonsense, vigorous romp through “Drums,” which effortlessly float into “Papa’s Home Reprise,” Panic tears into “Porch Song,” before “Last Dance” closes the second set in fine rebel glory. As if to commemorate this special evening, Panic seals the ‘one-for-the-rock-ages’ deal with a four-song encore, a mini-set of surprising fluidity that ends with Bell, solo on stage with a guitar and mike, gently bringing all back to earth with “Let’s Get the Show on the Road.”
History can be unkind to those who overstay their welcome. Widespread Panic has never been completely immune from this particularly acute criticism. They have many detractors who frown upon their sometimes blustery thud-jammery, and this writer has often strayed far away from the Panic experience. Archival recordings of some bands can also appear dated, lacking a timeless vibe, often underlined by those practitioners of the dreaded two-set live prototype. However, on this night, the magic, improvisational vigor, and quest for the sonic pearl that is often a powerful jamband undercurrent, especially in the mid-to-late 90s, is present at the Club Soda in Montreal. Indeed, Panic delivered a classic show in Canada, achieving and sustaining an exploratory airborne trajectory, while never losing its sense of adventure.
Randy Ray is a Senior Editor of Jambands.com