10/10/06 Orlando Concert Review: Don't call Widespread Panic a jam band

Jim Abbott | Sentinel Pop Music Critic
Orlando Sentinel Concert Review

Widespread Panic performs at the House of Blues on Monday evening.
photo by Jacob Langston

Don't call Widespread Panic a jam band
-- call them one of the best

Widespread Panic, the venerable jam band out of Athens, Ga., inspires rabid devotion and analysis from its hardcore fans -- and there was high anticipation before Monday's 10-9 show at House of Blues.

The band's current lineup is augmented by lead guitarist Jimmy Herring, a well-traveled sideman whose resume includes work with the Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh, the Allman Brothers and others.

Herring and guitarist-pedal steel player John Keane (also the band's longtime producer) have been enlisted for the personnel transition necessitated by the death of founding member Michael Houser from pancreatic cancer in 2002, and the recent departure of guitarist George McConnell.

The latter played on the band's latest studio album, Earth to America.

Herring is a monster on guitar, judging from his performance at Monday's sold-out show, the first in a three-night stand at HOB. Standing in the corner, with a stoic, bearded face that looks like a profile on Mount Rushmore, Herring combined flawless technical skill with an economic style that kept melody in the band's free-form improvisations.

Apparently, Widespread Panic doesn't like to be called a jam band, but it is. With a penchant for marathon songs that bleed into each other, a trait especially evident in the second of Monday's two sets, this is a band that makes an 11-minute drum solo sound compact.

Although the group was capable of diving into no-nonsense, hook-driven songs such as "Tall Boy" and the encore tear through "Down," there were also a few stream-of-consciousness interludes that bordered on self-indulgent. Still, when a band plays nearly three hours with such passion and skill, it's hard to complain.

Aside from "Crazy" in the first set, this wasn't a showcase for the new album. Instead, the band used a cross-section of its vast catalog to illustrate its flexibility: Swing, heavy rock, reggae and blues each represent a thread in the fabric. One of the most effective transitions was the segue in the 90-minute second set from the swampy "Rock" to the vaguely countrified "Blue Indian.'' The latter highlighted lead singer John Bell's expressive tenor, which often tends to be overshadowed by the wall of guitars, keyboards and percussion.

In such moments, it's also plain that Widespread Panic's combination of improvisational skill and Southern charm makes for a mighty sweet jam indeed.

Jim Abbott can be reached at jabbott@orlandosentinel.com