By James Calemine
“Four train days get me back to New Orleans,” are the opening lines on Widespread Panic’s new live release, Another Joyous Occasion. The eleven song recording is Panic’s debut CD on their new label, Widespread Records.
The Athens, Georgia, band broke an attendance record at New Orleans’ Jazz Festival in 1999, and Widespread also holds the World Record for the largest album release party, when their 1998 CD Light Fuse Get Away gathering drew 100,000 fans to the streets of Athens. Panic has become a formidable musical tribe over the years and continues to build a dedicated tour following.
A New Orleans motif threads through Panic’s most rhythmic and danceable song collection to date. Enter the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The Dirty Dozen formed in 1977, and have collaborated with musicians like Miles Davis, Branford Marsalis, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and the Black Crowes.
In 1999, the Dirty Dozen was chosen for the opening slot on an upcoming Widespread Panic tour, and Another Joyous Occasion originated from live recordings of the two bands’ touring relationship. “We first heard of the DDBB two years ago—we were doing our Halloween shows in New Orleans, and we asked them to sit in with us,” Widespread Panic drummer Todd Nance explained. “We’ve always been influenced by New Orleans music—especially the Meters. When we first started out, Michael Rothschild (President of Landslide Records, who produced Panic’s first album, Space Wrangler), suggested we listen to a lot of Meters, and we said, ‘Who?’ (laughs)”.
“Fishwater”, from Panic’s Ain’t Life Grand album, is the opening track, and it fuses into Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, which wanders back into “Fishwater Surprise”.
“Christmas Katie” from Til the Medicine Takes, sounds like a ragtime musical parade rolling down Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. “Beehive Jam” serves as the centerpiece for Another Joyous Occasion. These eleven minutes testify to how disturbing and threatening the Dirty Dozen Brass Band gets. Their playing conjures up images through sounds—voodoo trances, gris-gris, red beans & rice, mojo dust, amulets, bayou water, jazz funerals, catfish, graveyard dirt, turnip greens, lost souls, zombie powder, and hot gumbo.
During our conversation, I asked Todd of Another Joyous Occasion was put together with an intentional New Orleans theme, and he responded: “Well, not off the top of our heads, but it’s hard not to be absorbed into their (DDBB) sound—but it wasn’t an intentional theme on our part—except Jo Jo, y’know, he’s a total New Orleans freak…”
Next, Jo Jo Herman’s Professor Longhair-sounding piano carries through another Crescent City native’s song, “Big Chief”, a festive instrumental written by Earl King. The glorious procession rolls onto “Drums” which sounds as if the listener were just around the corner from a timeless sidewalk festival in Morocco or Montego Bay. Nance, Dave Schools (bass), and percussionist Domingo Ortiz compose Panic’s solid rhythm section, which serves as one of the band’s greatest strengths.
“Weight of the World” melts a blend of styles into an international dance beat. Another Joyous Occasion journeys into an intense jazz territory, meshing Panic’s jam-oriented style with the deep funk and jazz foundation of the Dirty Dozen.
An up-tempo version of “I Walk On Gilded Splinters” resembles the Duane Allman-Johnny Jenkins version more than the original, written by Mac “Dr. John” Rabennack. On “Splinters”, Mike Houser pulls out his slide, adding essential guitar grit to the song.
The next track, “Coconuts”, one of Panic’s oldest songs, is led by vocalist/guitarist John Bell, whose voice resembles an old gravel-voiced bluesman in a rundown French quarter juke joint.
The final song on the record is Winston Riley’s “Arleen”. When asked why “Arleen”-a studio song—closes out a collection of live songs, Todd replied: “Well, that “Arleen” track is live. We just gave it to John Keane (producer) who did his little dance-mix magic on it, but that track is a live track.”
With the help of the DDBB, “Arleen”—like the rest of this seventy-seven minute live recording—transcends into interstellar space. Another Joyous Occasion sounds like one big swaggering street party…just follow the trail of crawfish heads…