Widespread Panic :: 06.24.06 :: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: Morrison, CO
by Michael Kaiz
Red Rocks Amphitheatre is one of those venues that every band wants to play. It's a place where the echoes of the past influence the music we listen to today. Aside from one show in Kansas City, the venue found just west of Denver, CO would host the start of Widespread Panic's summer tour.
The June 24th concert was to be broadcast across the nation on Sirius Satellite Radio's Jam On station. Combine this with the fact that the band's rabid fanbase anticipate Panic at Red Rocks on a Saturday night with a particularly high level of reverence, and the stage was set for an epic show.
The tour takes place on the heels of the band's seventh studio release, Earth to America, which is the first album that did not feature John Keane as the producer. At Red Rocks we began to learn the reason why. While Keane has always been known to join the band on stage during their shows, his sit-ins would usually be limited to two or three songs. Over the course of this weekend, John Keane would barely miss a song.
I personally believe Keane is in the process of becoming an official member of Widespread Panic. If this were the case, it would make sense to find a new producer who can give an "outside of the band" perspective in the studio. Whether or not this is the case, Keane's persistent presence on the stage has a strong effect on the sound of the band.
The most obvious change is that Widespread Panic is now playing with three guitarists. Being able to play a concert with three guitarists and not muddle the sound is a difficult feat. Keane's experience with the band in the studio makes him the perfect addition; he already knows how the band writes and plays their songs. He has versatility as the third guitarist, either standing to play his brown sunburst Telecaster or taking a seat at his blue pedal steel guitar. This allows Panic to choose how much the guitar leads should blend or contrast on a given song.
There is a certain precision that is brought to the stage with the addition of the band's long time producer to the line up, and Red Rocks was the perfect place to experiment with the new possibilities. The amphitheater is a naturally occurring rock structure that provides almost studio like reinforcement in an outdoor setting. Only the dull thud of the bass can be felt outside of a concert, and I'm told that an acoustic performance can be heard clearly at the top row of the 9,500 person venue.
In my opinion, the experiment of adding John Keane has had less than desirable effects. I didn't come to Morrison, CO to see Panic's albums performed live. I made the long trek to see Panic jam out on their tunes. Too often it felt like Keane was keeping a tight leash on the band when they otherwise would have gone out on a limb. George McConnell is a great guitarist, and the right man for Panic, but he can't burst out of his shell when Mr. Keane is looming large.
Panic is supposed to have a deep southern edge to their music. That edge has been filed down with the addition of John Keane. I had to place myself directly in front of Dave Schools for his bass lines to cut through the mix. After the passing of Michael Houser in 2002, there are essentially four elements that give Panic their signature sound. In no particular order those qualities are Schools' innovative bass techniques such as the sliding karate chop, JoJo Hermann's funky keys, Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz's unique flair on percussion, and John Bell's voice. With Keane on stage, it felt as if all of these qualities, with the exception of JB's singing, were muted and held back.
With everyone settled into their place in the benches of Red Rocks, Panic brought the crowd to their feet with "Solid Rock." This first set was good, with a punchy "Thin Air" thrown in the mix, but when they closed out the set with "Ain't Life Grand," I felt like they didn't hit their maximum intensity.
The second set started off with "Slippin' Into Darkness" as the sun took its leave in the Rocky Mountains. The best run of this show started when Panic went into the anthem off their new album, "Second Skin." I think everyone can assign a meaning to this song, which allows you to connect deeply with the band.
With that connection established, I found myself three rows in front of George when the splashes of Evian and Crystal Geyser informed me that the band had segued into "Chilly Water." With the shadows of the mountains stretching over the city of Denver, the song and the sensation of the droplets were both refreshing.
Sunny's drum solo resonated off the natural red walls of the amphitheater and gave the sound a god-like effect where the drums seemed to be coming from all directions. At the start of his solo, a seasoned Panic fan leaned over and told me that Sunny is the band's secret weapon. Focusing on his sound I realized that his congas, cowbells, and bongos had always captivated me in the background of Panic's songs.
From Sunny's solo, the band made their way into "Ribs and Whiskey," a mellow tune during which all three of Panic's guitarists were whipping out their slides, John Keane using his bar slide seated at his pedal steel. "Ribs and Whiskey" is centered around JB's vocal delivery, and as any Panic fan will tell you, JB's voice can take them to another place, and that's one part of the band's sound that couldn't be caged by Keane's presence. The slight raspiness combined with the heartfelt soul can swoon any belle.
As a long-standing fan of the Talking Heads, I was overcome with joy when George slipped the first lick of "Life During Wartime" into the epic jam. Apparently the members of Panic have been fans of the Heads for a long time too. They gave this song an intensity that I thought couldn't be duplicated. The whole audience was swept up in the feverish tune; everyone was dancing with all the room they could occupy on the spacious benches of the amphitheater. The transition back into "Chilly Water" was so flawless that the dancing didn't skip a beat until the band brought the set to an end.
After a lengthy break, Panic came out playing "None Of Us Are Free." At a time when the song's words take on new meaning, JB's comment "We didn't write that, but we wish we did," rang out through the satellite feed to all of America. The second set of this concert was on a level that few bands can achieve. It takes a group like Panic to take a crowd of 9,000 to the heights we reached at Red Rocks.
In the spirit of making up the plan as you go, I think it would be best for Panic to keep Keane stashed away until those moments for which his technique and sound are best suited. It used to be special when they brought him on stage for a song or two, but the general feeling of the fans is that Keane's time on stage has ballooned too far. With Earth to America, the band truly puts on their second skin. I just hope that skin features George and not a combination of George and John Keane.