Reviewed by Jim Caligiuri, Fri., Nov. 10, 2006
The Backyard, Nov. 2 & 4
The Grateful Dead still live ask Widespread Panic's fans. Just look at the hippie kids ('spread heads?) thrusting one finger in the air at every venue they play. With the Dead on semipermanent hiatus and Phish gutted, the Athens, Ga.-based sextet is feeling the waves of jam-band gravy. Together for 20 years now, new lead guitarist Jimmy Herring, a vet of Phil Lesh and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, fills out the lineup. After a three-night run at the Backyard, it's easy to see Panic as finely tuned progenitors of an Americana that bursts with blues, funk, spacey interludes, and crunchy guitar. Thursday night kicked off tentatively: The energy was fine, and Herring showed why he may be the best guitar player you've never heard of, as they checked in with songs from latest Earth to America (Sanctuary). It never synthesized into anything extraordinary until, near the end of the second set, the voodoo of Dr. John's "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" gave life to a blistering reincarnation of the Band's "Chest Fever," opener Randall Bramblett adding some splendid sax. Saturday night's show, however, sent the sold-out crowd into a widespread frenzy and may have singed the famed oaks of the Backyard a bit. From the Southern rock of "Chilly Water," which sent the first set into a much higher orbit, to the raucous second-set opener "Ain't Life Grand" to crowd-pleaser "Airplane," WP proved that, while other bands may tread similar waters, none can match their distinctive ensemble play and wide-ranging vibrations. Those who need more Panic attacks should be on the lookout for a 2-DVD set, Earth to Atlanta, due Nov. 14.