One can hear the laughter on stage after a boisterous “Blackout Blues” as Panic decides what to play next. A rare “E on G” wins, and the band strolls together through its brief instrumental passage on the third volume in the Porch Song series, recorded July 22nd, 2001 at the Kahuna Summerstage in Wilmington, Delaware, from a late date on the summer swing. It is the second volume in a row from that tour, just a year before guitarist Michael Houser’s untimely passing.
The first set is a rather relaxed affair, as these things are wont to be for the southern jamband on occasion. However, they don’t let the mood slide into a malaise. Panic continues their confident stride, stopping for a lyrical observation, or an acute musical aside, and then, back into exquisite group interplay. They solo often, no doubt, and with gusto, but also prove that experienced musicians can find the groove, stay there, and move as one beast, hunting, always hunting, for the sonic gold.
Mastering the infamous improvisational segue was what Panic did back then. One can feel the thrill of these tracks. The musicians haven’t grown tired, the music isn’t turgid. While they don’t exactly blow the doors down from the outset, like the September 1997 gig from Montreal’s Club Soda recently documented on a multi-track archival release, Panic is on point, and ready to head into another dimension for a few hours. And, you know, that ain’t exactly an easy thing to do, back in 2001, 1971, or now, for that matter. Id transportation is difficult as distractions tend to impede.
“Diner” is the first set’s clear standout—in length, depth, and scenic mind candy journeyspeak—as Panic manages to find the X factor, and hold onto its dense and mystical frame for 13-minutes plus. To be sure, this track also makes one think of how well this gig has been recorded, as well. This is a shit hot live band playing in its element—on stage—late on a summer tour, but the sound, that indefinable feel of the groove recorded, mixed, and mastered is really solid on this track, and throughout. One can’t help but think that Panic was reaching a mighty peak from whence they would be judged in future years, and most certainly have, with or without the many opinions about George McConnell, in the immediate post-Houser years.
The second set begins with Talking Heads’ “Swamp,” and is a bit wah wah-drenched, and less than exploratory, but a fun cover, nonetheless. “Sleepy Monkey,” a two-stone throw a bit later on, is symbolic of the continued slow and patient pace of the entire show. Panic is playing a solid, well-played gig, and one that lifts a bit off the ground, but not too far, and that is O.K. once in a while, too. Mind isn’t exactly blown, but damned if the monkey doesn’t really dig deep into the somnambulist’s psyche.
But “Party at Your Mama’s House > Red Hot Mama > Drums” is where the band really reaches for the sky, and then drifts back down into an ethereal adventure. Again, the sound of the recording is mighty fine, the playing is tight and focused, and for fuck’s sake, one can hear the band taking its time to gain momentum through a democratic process, instead of attempting to dive into an authoritarian experiment without a clue.
After a long 20-minute “Drums” passage that somehow kicks ass—what is interesting here, is that drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo Ortiz, stay faithful to the overall arc and pace of the entire loose and languid feel of the show—the second half of the second set finds a barnstorming peak out of nowhere with Panic’s first rendition of “All Along the Watchtower.” Dave Schools handles vocal duties, and keyboardist JoJo Hermann delivers the solo. Refreshingly, this version is more akin to the original Bob Dylan version, rather than the Jimi Hendrix reading, which has been beaten into submission by numerous bands, and gets me to immediately head to the next track.
Yes, but the band is far from finished, and finally conclude a nearly flawless and unforced yet subtly intense two-set performance with a hard-driving version of “Travelin’ Light.” And they did on this evening—moving as one multi-pronged unit, confident and graceful, light-footed, melancholic, buoyant, but without the obnoxious party-time vibe which is great at the time, but often doesn’t yield a memorable performance.
John Bell delivers a poignant ballad, “Old Joe,” as the first encore, before the shit-kicking second encore “North” gives the Kahuna Summer Stage audience in Delaware a boot out of the venue with a firm and friendly goodbye. Another pleasurable thumbs up on what continues to be a fond look back at the Panic archives—two-track, multi-track, straight soundboard, or otherwise, just get these fine goods out there, man.