Despite what it says on the second-rate marquee outside, Irving Plaza will always be the same-old mediocre venue, and it certainly won't ever approximate the original Fillmore East. Nonetheless, it was a fitting venue, at least in name, for the second annual Bill Graham Memorial Foundation benefit concert. And the featured band -- Widespread Panic -- was a solid choice to honor the memory of the pioneering promoter of the Fillmore's outposts on both coasts.
In conventional Spreadhead fashion, the floor was packed with legions of drunken frat-heads and drug-addled neo-hippies eagerly awaiting the rare small-theater appearance by the band ("It's buns to franks up front," one guy complained in the bathroom). As usual, Panic didn't disappoint. It won't go down as a legendary show, but the two-set affair had plenty of fireworks.
Opening with the soaring arena rock of "Heroes," the band quickly moved into the high-octane "Disco," which always gets the crowd moving. A fairly standard first set followed, highlighted by a "Henry Parsons/Green Onions/Henry Parsons" sandwich. Jimmy Herring, the band's relatively new guitarist, displayed his abundant chops -- honed during years of diverse studio work and touring with early-'90s jam/prog staple Aquarium Rescue Unit -- but he wasn't able to lock in with frontman John Bell until the closing two songs, "Pigeons" and the overplayed but always welcome "Ain't Life Grand."
Many Panic fans will tell you that the band has never really recovered from the untimely death six years ago of lead guitarist and band co-founder Michael Houser. They're probably right, as the George McConnell years demonstrated so well. Herring provides more versatility, but at times he feels like a hired gun, not fully in sync with the rest of the band. He can play circles around most guitarists, but his dizzying fretwork doesn't always jibe with Panic's straightforward, muscular rock'n'roll.
Regardless, the second set amped the energy in the room another notch. Old stalwart "Space Wrangler" kicked things off, and then "North" and a loose-limbed "Smokestack Lightning," a nice bluesy nod to Bill Graham and his favorite band, the Grateful Dead. After a pleasingly meandering jam, the band launched into the oft-played duo, "Protein Drink" and "Sewing Machine." To close the set, they paired up heated versions of "Holden Oversoul" and "Conrad."
Panic always gives you meaty encores, and tonight was no different. The trio of "Expiration Day," "Pilgrims" and "Goin' Out West" seemed to leave everyone satisfied, and by this point the crowd had thinned out a bit, allowing room to get out from under the sound-killing low ceiling in the back.
Here is Widespread Panic's set list:
Set 1: "Heroes" "Disco" "Angels on High," "Smokin' Factory" "Fixin' to Die" "Henry Parsons" >"Green Onions" "Henry Parsons" "Dark Day Program," "Pigeons," "Ain't Life Grand"
Set 2: "Space Wrangler," "North" "Smokestack Lightning" jam "Protein Drink" "Sewing Machine," "Let's Get the Show on the Road" "Airplane" "Under Radar" jam "Papa's Home," "Holden Oversoul" "Conrad"
Encore: "Expiration Day," "Pilgrims," "Goin' Out West"