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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Blues drive Widespread Panic

August 04, 2003|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

With the first song of its first concert of a three-night run at the Wiltern Theatre, Georgia band Widespread Panic gave a nod Friday to an influential '70s Los Angeles group -- not the Eagles or Little Feat, bands that share Panic's Southern-rock roots, but funk band War, whose slinky "Slippin' Into Darkness" proved a perfect tone-setter for the evening.

Widespread Panic may be known as a veteran leader of the neo-jam scene, whose ranks scattered and multiplied after the 1995 death of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia (who would have turned 61 on Friday). But it was a sense of darkness threaded through the show that set the band apart from the often-empty celebrations of current jamsters.

The War song first turned up as an occasional entry in the Panic repertoire after the cancer death of founding guitarist Michael Houser a year ago. Throughout Friday night (two sets totaling nearly three hours), that shadow of loss was present as the tight sextet touched on the haunted tones of blues, often recalling the band's most obvious models, the Allman Brothers Band and Santana. A streak of spooky swamp-rock echoing Dr. John and Tony Joe White also emerged, making the most of front man John Bell.

A couple of songs from the recent "Ball" album showcased a growing feel for crisp song structures, while another L.A. nod -- in Neil Young's Buffalo Springfield rocker "Mr. Soul" -- got the second set off to a charged start. Later, a version of Curtis Mayfield's anti-drug "Pusherman" added an additional dark hue, though the message was perhaps lost in the smoke wafting from party-happy fans.

Where the Panic came up a little short, though, was in the actual jamming, when new guitarist George McConnell's solos rarely soared a la those of Duane Allman or Carlos Santana, not to mention Garcia.

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