It was a beautiful sunny day in Oakland but the police helicopters circling high above the city were a sign that tensions were high. While the activist group, Anonymous, was calling for nationwide protests on Friday July 15th against the senseless killings of innocent lives by Law Enforcement Officers around the country, many peace loving music freaks were gathering for a different type of rage…a raging party at the Fox Theater in Oakland with Widespread Panic.
The sound of the swirling ‘copter blades didn’t deter the Spreadheads from getting in line early to have a chance to score one of the limited edition Chuck Sperry posters or to secure a place on the rail. Once inside, fans were greeted by one of the nicest music venues on the west coast. The ornately decorated theater’s stage is flanked by Egyptian statues as well as a multitude of easy accessible bars; it even has air conditioned vents in the floors to keep the dancing bodies cool while the music heats up the room. As the bodies spilled in, old friends were reunited and new friendships were made as everyone found their space for the evening spectacle.
The band hit the stage only a few minutes late and treated the audience to a wonderful rendition of an original Panic tune, “Wondering.” This song works well as an opener as it talks about the emotions that tangle up just before letting yourself be captivated by a nights worth of music in a roomful of strange yet oddly familiar faces. The song does take a darker turn as it harkens to the things we see on TV and lately that has not been all roses and rainbows. Jimmy Herring and his first soaring guitar solo reminded us of the darkness that is on our televisions seemingly every night. A plea to turn our collective hearts around to focus on the good did not fall upon deaf ears. We screamed and yelled but our purpose was to honor the muse, and for a moment, the reality of the outside world was suspended as the Dionysian soundscape washed our bodies clean of all ill will. For a moment, all was good in our world. Yes, this is why we come out to see live music.
Next we were treated to “Up All Night” and “Better Off,” two songs that celebrate life yet question our position in the world. What is it that keeps us up at night? A theme of violence and unrest began to reveal itself during the first set with the next few songs referring to bullets, bombs and revenge. With the violence in Paris and the civil unrest in the United States, the Panic boys chose to tackle these subjects head on with song. “Can’t Get High” featured some fun interplay between John Bell and Mr. Herring but the meat of the set followed with a poignant rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s antiwar anthem, “For What It’s Worth.” Bell sang with such conviction it seemed as if he penned the song himself. Jimmy Herring’s subtle yet driving guitar riffs, mixed with deep bass lines from Dave Schools, provided a launchpad for a short but sweet jam before coming back to the final chorus.
Another song laden with references to violence and war, “Cease Fire,” followed and gave the audience our first extended jam of the evening. I forgot what song we were in before being swept away by a rocking “Disco,” which has always been a crowd favorite for letting loose. The dance party and the heavy theme of war continued with “Greta,” and like a pack of rabid dogs, drummer Duane Trucks and percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz laid down the foundation while JoJo Herman and Jimmy traded tasty licks. When the band introduced us to “Greta” and brought to mind that she ain’t no flower child, we were once again reminded of the turmoil that was playing out on the other side of the hallowed walls of the Oakland Fox Theater. With a collective roar we asked, “How’s it gonna be?” The band answered the question with a cover of the Talking Heads song “Life During Wartime.” While this song is a perfect vehicle for dance, it was also a stark reminder of our current state of affairs in the US and how we have become numb to the barrage of news reports of mass shootings both on our soil and abroad. WSMFP was not fooling around!
If the first set was a harbinger of bad times, the second set was the light at the end of that tunnel. Second set opener, “Glory” reminded us that love and dance and song has the power to bring us together, even during tough times. Keeping with the theme of redemption the band played, “Good People” and encouraged us to see the light in the world. Louder and louder, Herring and Schools jammed around the melody while the percussion filled our cups and led us home again. John Bell treated us to an oldie but a goodie, “Love Tractor” into an “Aunt Avis” for the ages. The screens behind the band were lit with blue and images of willow trees brought us to the back porch for a conversation with Aunt Avis. Perhaps the world needs a visit to that porch to remember how to be good in these trying times. J.B.’s voice creaked and cracked and begged Avis and his granddaddy to show the world how to be good again. The mood changed a bit with, “You Should Be Glad” and the first extended jam of the second set. Soon I found myself, once again lost in time and space, only to be brought back to earth with a cover of a Vic Chestnutt tune, “Sleeping Man.” It’s goofy lyrics cut through the seriousness of the night like a knife before were were treated to a rocking “B of D” and crowd favorite, “Chilly Water.” As a photographer, when the first notes of “Chilly Water” came from the stage, I opted to leave the dance floor. The crowd loves to fling water and other beverages through the air during this song and I was fearful for my camera gear!!! I headed up to the balcony for the first time that night to get a bird’s eye view of the rest of the show. The energy in the seats was just as intense as on the floor! That “Chilly Water” provided a launchpad for jamming as the band steered into drums and a rollicking version of “Bears Gone Fishing”, proving that even on a somber night, the boys know how to party down. Dave Schools soon began to slap that bass extra hard as the band steered the jam into an epic, “Bust it Big” with the crowd singing along and dancing like no one was watching. To wrap up the set, John Bell brought the boys back to “Chilly Water” territory and once again, libations went flying!
As a reminder of the seriousness at hand, the band encored with a haunting rendition of Cat Steven’s “Trouble”. J.B. has a soulful voice that lends itself to this tune well, making the lyrics mean even more than usual, especially during those times. I have listened back to this a few times since this night and I get chills down my spine every time. The final encore and song of the night was Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” With the upcoming elections and many believing that we are faced with a choice of voting for the lesser of two evils, this really hit home. Whether these themes were on purpose or just perceived by me I will never know, but what I do know is that Widespread Panic provided us an outlet that Friday night. An outlet to laugh, cry, scream, and LOVE. And that is what the world needed, not a night of rage, but a night TO rage along with friends so dear. Thank you. Widespread Panic!
Fox Theatre, Oakland
Friday, July 15, 2016
Set 1: Wondering, Up All Night, Better Off, Can’t Get High, For What It’s Worth, Cease Fire, Disco, Greta> Life During Wartime
Set 2: Glory, Goodpeople> Love Tractor, Aunt Avis, You Should Be Glad, Sleeping Man, B of D> Chilly Water> Drums> Bear’s Gone Fishin’> Chilly Water/Bust It Big
Encore: Trouble, You Can’t Always Get What You Want