Panic brings big sound to Jazz Aspen stage |

Panic brings big sound to Jazz Aspen stage

Stewart Oksenhorn
Widespread Panic headlines Thursday, opening its two-night stand at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

I took it as a sign that Widespread Panic was feeling super-loose Thursday night when they opened their show in Snowmass Village with “Rebirtha,” a song whose stretches and changes last a long time.”Rebirtha” went on long enough as to cause extended discussion in the photographers pit about whether it constituted one song or two. It was counted as two – wrongly – but I didn’t complain, as it was long enough for three.By the middle of the second set, it had become clear that this kind of exploratory grooving was not unusual, but was going to be the largest part of the show. In its Jazz Aspen debut, the Georgia jam band seemed to fit in with other bands that emphasize the group groove over the individual soloing. Former Snowmass Village ski bum George McConnell, who joined the band in 2002, was generally great at taking the band places as lead guitarist. But those instances were not so many. Instead, Panic played with a group mind. The rhythm section, especially – kit drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Sunny Ortiz, and bassist Dave Schools – played like an aggressive three-headed machine. John Bell, the band’s lead singer, is a fine vocalist in the Southern rock tradition, but even at the front of the stage, his singing blends just like the rest of the instruments. The emphasis on six parts playing together gives Panic a huge sound, enough to fill a space like the Labor Day Fest venue.Perhaps the grooves stood out because, for me at least, the songs didn’t. I heard from several of the band’s closer followers that the night featured a bunch of new songs. Most of the tunes I did recognize were by other writers: a countrified take on the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life,” J.J. Cale’s “Traveling Light,” and Traffic’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” the song that was probably treated with the most enthusiasm. Toward the end of the second set, the songs got tighter and better defined. A spiffy new song by keyboardist JoJo Hermann, with its various parts turning on a dime, was a show highlight. His “Bayou Lena,” with its repeated references to New Orleans, was greeted with big cheers.Widespread is also marked by its Southerness. Drummer Nance has that New Orleans flair to his timing. McConnell’s playing has country and Allmans-style boogie. Hermann has gospel and blues overtones. Bell sings with a Southern accent.Catching my attention just as much as Widespread was Panic’s occasional associate, Jerry Joseph. Joseph opened the festival alone with his acoustic guitar for a handful of songs that were long but perfectly constructed. He was then joined by a backing trio, and the group powered through Joseph’s razor-sharp rockers.Also earning his applause was Johnny Clegg, a South African whose lyrics use the simple, universal language of traditional African songs.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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