Written by Erika Rasmussen
Photos by Jerry Friend
In every culture, there are leaders, disciples or followers, and fables or parables. Parables are stories to remind the listener of his beliefs. Traditionally, a leader's disciples were chosen because they "had ears to hear" the true life lessons. After decades of following Widespread Panic around the world, it's safe to say that we could be considered disciples of this rowdy gang from Georgia. This past weekend's run at Harrah's Cherokee Center Asheville, NC, could easily be seen as another book of parables. Sent from on "high" to give us a hint of what's important. Aren't we all trying to be better and do better? Who couldn't benefit from a few more life lessons? I certainly could, but y'all know that. Let's dive into this three-chapter tome...
Chapter 1: Friday Night - Once upon a time...
...A band opened with "Let's Get Down to Business" to emphasize that it's time to "tackle this what shackles us, all of this pressing business". We had to face the fact that safety measures were needed to have this weekend and the band did a fan-damn-tastic job of screening for vaccinations and/or negative COVID tests. No system is perfect, but we were blown away at how efficiently they managed to instill this extra measure of health & safety. Kudos. The band also gently told us that "we don't have to do this, we can just walk away from here" in "You Should Be Glad". But they don't walk away. In "Gimme", JB tells you "I'd give you my heart if I could." And doesn't he give us his heart? Aren't they all putting their safety on the line to keep the show going and keep us entertained? Panic Laureate Josh Stack states it so eloquently when he says "They ascend to this new world with grace and style, as always. Doing so in a town like Asheville, known for its bohemian musical depth and passion, allowed them to approach this run with vigor, despite the new atmosphere. They spoke through their setlists with more than just a bevy of songs, but a ferocity to the music that was echoed by the fans." "Good People" lamented "Faster and faster, Fables overturned...Some are weak and wounded, Others sick and sore..." And that's not a Grimm fairy tale. That is our grim reality, unless we come together to keep each other safe. But it's not all dire, folks. We were treated to another magnificent "Dark Bar" during "Good People". Next came "Tail Dragger", which always makes me think of the Link Wray version, not Howlin' Wolf's. That's because Link Wray is a Shawnee Native and North Carolinian, but we'll get to that. After closing the first set with "Love Tractor", set two kicked-off with "Rumble", which is a Link Wray original. This Tarheel's single includes a genre-changing guitar staple riff and is the only instrumental to ever be banned from radio. Now THAT is a power chord. Do yourself a favor and watch the documentary "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World". A beautiful "Don't Be Denied" was a touching tribute to Mikey Houser's start with the band, "Well, pretty soon I met a friend, he played guitar. We used to sit on the steps at school, and dream of being stars. We started a band...." In fact, Neil Young wrote this song in tribute to longtime music partner, Danny Whitten, who had recently died too early. Widespread Panic, and the Panic community, have lost too many friends in the five years they've been gone from Asheville. Since the last run here in 2016, we've said goodbye to Col. Bruce, Todd Nance, and recently Danny Hutchens. And the lost friends on tour are far too many. On a lighter note, this song is also a snapshot of when Neil Young legitimately sold "eggs & chickens on the side" after his parents' divorce. Eggs & chickens will come up in the evening closer. Panic would also later cover Neil's "Walk On" on the second night. Second set included power jams like "Take-Off" and Pink Floyd's "Run Like Hell". The boys love covering Floyd in Asheville, hmmm? (Oh, take me back to that Floyd's Barber Shop Halloween set...) I found the closer of "Expiration Day" as beautiful as always. However, the line "And I know it'll kill me, breathing all those fumes" has a new meaning in this pandemic world.
Chapter 2: Saturday Night - The Plot Thickens...
"They say it takes hardship, boy, to let you love the rest...". This line from set one opener "Pleas" sums up our feelings about returning to live music. I appreciate it more than ever, no matter what security/testing lines I must go through. When I hear "Blue Indian" and "Oh, how long 'til the medicine takes", I can only think about our vaccinations. And "What doesn't kill you has a momma's way of, helping ya learn" in "Time Zones" seems especially prophetic now as we timidly return to concerts. Nothing was timid about the set closer of "Flat Foot Flewzy", I tell you. The arena positively SHOOK. If you've ever wondered WHY you love that song so much, just know that the legendary Carl Perkins co-wrote it. So it was destined for musical greatness. Set two opened with "Walk On". The entire song seemed a message of moving on, which we all need to do at times, amiright? Then came a "Turn On Your Lovelight" jam that hasn't been busted out since 2016, the same year that Panic last visited Asheville. Hot damn. I wish I would've made a mask/social distancing t-shirt that said, "Oh no, I just need a little room to play" when I heard the "Conrad". Anyone else snicker during "Blight" for "Caught an illness that was literally viral"? What followed was a series of core show staples, including a FIRE "Protein Drink > Sewing Machine". Just when things couldn't get hotter, the encore began with Bloodkin's "Trashy" in honor of late, beloved Danny Hutchens. The first set had already seen his "Makes Sense to Me". I knew Danny, interviewed him together with Todd Nance and others, and collaborated on an article with him (also featuring Dave Schools). Everyone seems to have so much to say about Danny, now that he's gone. It's hard to tell who knew the real Danny if you just trust what you see online ("Who knows who is both your best friend and brother? When everyone has deserted you...") Some people seem to have sunk to an "all time low". So I spoke to one of the people who knew Danny best and she had this to say:
Okay, first things first. The tribute from Red Rocks was amazing, and it's wonderful to see Panic adding "Trashy" to their repertoire. It makes my heart smile to think so many people have loved it as much as they do.
He said when people would ask him what a song meant, he would say songs are like time travel. They mean different things to different people at different times in their life. It's all about what the listener draws upon. Sometimes he would think one way about something, and years down the road, something would happen, and he goes, "Oh, never mind..." Townes Van Zandt had a quote about it ("I'd like to write some songs that are so good that nobody understands them. Not even myself.") It's meant for you to interpret the way that fits you at different points in your life. As in the "Trashy, but we're true" line. Danny was a mess, bless him. But he was true, and his home with his family was true, and it was a place filled with love. When he would talk to people about the meaning behind the song, he'd say "If you read it, it's all right there, right in front of you. And if you were around me at that point in my life, you probably know what it means." The meaning is literally for the person to interpret the way that they see. He didn't want people to know the exact stories behind each and every song. He wanted people to take from it what was best for them. He wanted them to have their own emotional connection to his music. Not his emotional connection from outside. And honestly, there are so many songs that the world hasn't heard and God, I really want them to be heard.
The verses, chorus, and melody of "Trashy" are all genius, but I especially love "my yard's a field trip to my past". As is every yard (in the South). And as is every show, as you bump into people that you haven't seen in years. But that's the beauty of it all. That walk down memory lane that music as beautiful as Danny's and Panic's music takes you on. "Weight of the World" said "Children, too, fall to this weight of the world" and it just grabbed my heart in light of the current state of the world. But then we soar again with the encore closer of "Action Man" and race joyfully outta the civic center like racehorses down the straight.
Chapter 3: Sunday Night - And They All Lived Happily Ever After
Our happy tale ends with an evening of debauchery, launched by "Coconut", which hasn't been a non-Playa opener since '17 St Augustine. It takes a heater to pull that baby out at the start. I felt like you could almost see JB wink during "If we can live together, the dream it might come true" in "City of Dreams". And who hasn't learned in the last year that "It's the new mother nature taking over, she's getting us all, she's getting us all..." like the closer of "No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature" says. As we opened the second set, I side-eyed my friends during "Deep six keeps the population down" in "From the Cradle". Talk about your timely relevance. Next came "Dear Mr. Fantasy", which my friend, Chloe, called at lunch. But how perfect is the Traffic line of "Do anything, take us out of this gloom, sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy"? That ended up being a smart call. However, while the band is trying to take us out of our gloom, sometimes we demand too much. We want everything exactly how we want it, when we want it. And it all takes its toll on the performers. "You are the one who can make us all laugh, but doing that you break out in tears..." And I'm guilty of asking too much of the band, as well. Wasn't I the one who started the change.org petition to have them play "Eminence Front" years ago? A girl can dream, though, right? "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and "Sleepy Monkey" from Night 2 are also on the original setlist at THE A-frame house (if you know, you know). Set two's poetic "St Ex" goes back to JB's quote about writing the song, "What if you knew the people that you were fighting against? That they were not nameless. They weren't faceless." This is worth thinking of when we're tearing each other down in the comments online. When we're railing against spending a little extra energy to keep our community safe. These people we're talking about, they aren't nameless. They aren't faceless. The people we insult and hurt every day are real people. And some of them are heroes to us if we only knew the whole story. And please don't ever think y'all are getting the whole story on Facebook, gang. Living your best, most authentic life isn't putting on "a well-executed smile". It's truly recognizing "we are not enemies". Anyway. The Black Sabbath "Electric Funeral" jam we heard hasn't been around since 10/25/2016. This absolute face-melter was sandwiched in "Surprise Valley" with "Maggot Brain" and "I'm So Glad". Sing it with me now, "Tired of weeping, tired of moaning..." Yet, Panic tells us "Still I try, to make you happy" in the closer of "Postcard". And you do, gentlemen. You make us SO happy. The encore came out with Fabian's "This Friendly World" and "Every heart should be so thankful, thankful for this friendly, friendly world". Indeed, Mr. Bell. After "Down", we were blown away by "You Can't Always Get What You Want". The only complaint I'd have about this amazing rendition, was that it was SO touching, SO rock-your-heart-out, SO powerful and meaningful in the moment, that it further fueled the rumors that this was it. The end. Jazzfest was cancelled and everyone was saying that there would be no more touring. However, as JB performed his customary farewell, he prompted us that he'd see us in Austin. New safety protocols have been released for Austin since then (masks on, y'all) and I'm sure after this weekend, that's no problem for anyone.
Epilogue: Our Heroes Live to Fight Another Day
So, what did we learn from these parables? Well, I learned that things that seem insurmountable and just too damn complicated (like COVID precautions, downtown parking, liquor lines, whatever) can sometimes be easily achieved. I learned that I still adore seeing every single person I bumped into (Team Bell - *ding*). I learned that I love JoJo on upright as much as ever. I learned that Panic appreciates my beloved Link Wray and his tie to NC, too. I learned that Edie Griffin Jackson, ASL Interpreter, shares my sentiment in the new meanings to the songs now. Edie says "You literally took the words out of my head regarding the meaningful songs of the shows. It was similar at Red Rocks where it was clear there was a message and all songs were thoughtfully chosen. Of course so many of the song lyrics evoke a different meaning and perspective with what we are working through together NOW. The way I interpret certain songs has changed: "Blight'' is an obvious example: it used to be about toxic negative relationships and now it's much more literal! Other songs like "Climb to Safety" have become (to me) more about mental health and depression than addiction and recovery. And so many of the songs about coming HOME and coming TOGETHER have so much more intensity because these things we thrive on we can no longer take for granted...People are fearful of the future shows being cancelled but being with the capable crew and doctor consultant behind the scenes gave me a greater level of confidence that shows can likely go on. There were safety measures beyond testing and vax cards...it was impressive and other bands are calling them up to follow Panic's lead." I hope we all learned something this weekend, and every time we come together as an audience. If you make it to Austin, be sure to wear a smile under your mask. "You should be happy to be alive...."
Sources: Deepest thanks to members of the Athens community, Josh Stack, Edie Griffin Jackson, EverydayCompanion.com and PanicStream.com for the data and commentary, as always. Any errors are strictly the author's.