On a September Saturday, we took the entire family to Coney Island for a late afternoon of fun and Nathan's before making our way over to the new Amphitheater for the second night of Widespread Panic.
I've been a huge fan of theirs since forever (my first time seeing them was in 1992) and they were a whiskey-soaked passion of mine over the years leading up to Michael Houser's death. I don't see them nearly as much these days, partly because they don't come up this way all that often, but the last few times I've seen them, they've been truly excellent got-that-old-feeling affairs.
Reports from Friday were very positive, so my expectations for Saturday were moderately high... expectations which were met and then exceeded very quickly with a monster, super-old-school show. The venue was probably 2/3 full if I'm being generous and we camped out in the back section with a nice breeze, plenty of room to move and a nice vantage to see and hear the music.
The band came out of the gates pretty hot and didn't really cool off. The set was made up of more or less their oldest material, which was fine by us. But that only tells part of the story, because the playing was inventive and high energy.
Midway through the first set featured a pairing that felt like it was better suited to come deep in the second -- "Airplane" > "Arleen" each featured an extended jam that had the band turning away from the audience, moments that always signaled a lengthy departure from the road-most-traveled.
There really were too many highlights to list and there wasn't a low moment in the show (notably, no Jojo songs nor drums segment). With all the old material, I was struck again and again by John Bell's poetic lyricism, his imagery and twist-of-phrase are unparalleled. Great songs, killer jams, fun segues and a level of comfort that could be felt all the way in the back of the room: it was one helluva Panic show.
These shows essentially signified Jimmy Herring's ten year anniversary with the band -- his debut shows in September 2006 in New York City (at Radio City Music Hall). Seeing him play (nay, shred) Saturday night almost exactly 10 years after seeing him debut with Panic at Radio City, I couldn't help but think back on my almost 25 years seeing him. It's funny because the first time I saw Widespread Panic, Jimmy Herring was on the stage. it was at the original HORDE tour in July 1992 in what was descriptively known as the "ARU > WSP" jam where one set flowed into the next with a jam in between with both bands on stage.
So in a way for me, his return to Widespread Panic was the closing of a circle... but a very long and weird circle. He brings to Widespread Panic, and literally every gig he plays, the totality of his experience performing in studio and on stage. Perhaps you'll recognize these qualities in the band that is his present musical home.
My first Herring experiences were with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. They'd come up through the Northeast once or twice a year and I always made a point to check them out -- there was nothing quite like them. In between these shows I managed to forget about what kind of player Jimmy was and it always took me 2 or 3 songs to get reacclimated to his style and skill. Which is to say he played more notes than I could wrap my brain around and yet with this laid back style that somehow didn't match the music coming out of his guitar.
This would be a theme over the next couple decades: watching Jimmy Herring play something that seemed technically impossible, emotionally exhilarating and satisfying all with an "aw shucks" grin on his face, as if he couldn't believe his luck that he'd been blessed with this skill and figured out a way to do what he loved and get paid to do it.
In many ways, much more than the rest of the band, he seemed to channel the Zambi spirit of Col. Bruce, the freeform, drop your ego and just flow with music. It was weird and wonderful. What I would come to call "The ARU Rabbit Hole" a place where regular music goes through the looking glass straight to Wonderland.
One of my favorite bits of the Bruce Hampton shtick was how he would always announce Herring as being from the town they were playing... I heard "Jimmy Herring from Boston, Massachusetts" every time they came to town and once I figured out the jig, enjoyed playing along with the joke. I'll never forget talking to some dudes at a Phish show who were convinced that Herring was from Northampton, MA and that was why he played so out-of-mind at the show there. They were right about the playing, whatever parts unknown he hailed from.
LISTEN: Jimmy and the ARU in 1993
After ARU kind of dissolved back to the dust from whence it came, Herring kind of bounced around in little projects here and there. After moving to the NYC area around this time, I remember seeing him play in a band called "The Apt. Project" with ARU drummer Jeff Sipe. They played at Manny's Car Wash and there couldn't have been more than a dozen people there. Of course, the music was glorious and weird, a free-jazz version of the Unit's sensibilities.
Between sets I got up to hit the men's room which was near where the musician's were hanging out and Jimmy seemed to think I was there to chat instead of take a leak. I'll never forget how he just started talking with me like we were old buddies. I honestly thought he might have somehow recognized me from standing agog in the front row at those old ARU shows years before I realized that was just his personality, an honest-to-goodness nice guy, unjaded and totally interested in gabbing with anyone nearby.
Unfortunately, at that point, it seemed like he was destined to ply his talents in the relative obscurity which was disappointing to say the least. I couldn't understand how a guy this freakin' good, emphasis on freakin, got so little love from the scene. Thankfully, my worry that his career would fade to black was totally unfounded.
Starting with Jazz Is Dead, he hopped from one project to the next bringing each band he played with into that ARU rabbit hole (Frogwings! Project Z!) and impressing pretty much everyone along the way.
I'll never forget when he got the call to play with the Allman Brothers, after Dickey Betts was out of the band. Jimmy came in on short notice and immediately took the band to places they had never had a chance to go. We went to see them at the Garden State Arts Center (aka PNC Bank) and sat on the lawn, jaws dropped when he poured notes by the gazillion into those classic ABB tunes. Hard to believe there was an Allmans tour that featured the one-two guitar punch of Jimmy Herring and Derek Trucks. It maybe wasn't meant to be for too long, but while it lasted it was some of the most glorious freeform rabbit-holed Allmans that ever existed.
But perhaps his biggest pre-Panic splash was as a member of the vaunted Phil Lesh and Friends line-up known as "The Quintet" or simply... "The Q." That line-up was very much a one-for-all/all-for-one arrangement, but there is no doubting that Jimmy's ability to take the material to places people didn't know it could was a major component of its long-term success.
During their heyday, there were few bands better... nowhere else could you see such without-a-net improvisation and inventiveness. As a longtime fan of Herring's, I enjoyed watching his long musical history unfold during these jams, the ARU weirdness, his jazz'd interpretations of the music, his ability to listen to his bandmates and interject and then completely take control with large quantities of notes in creative combinations that made that oh-so-familiar music completely, gloriously unrecognizable.
There have been other things, projects and appearances and I'd say pretty much without fail, Jimmy Herring has been a focal point of each. Now he's with Widespread Panic and it somehow feels like home. The last few times I've seen them, it's been amazing to hear how he's made the material his own and yet plays it as a just-under-the-surface tribute to Michael Houser.
Many times I'm listening to a Panic song I've heard dozens of times with Mikey and so I can hear how he played it in my head and then I hear Jimmy playing it there in front of me and somehow the two versions are working together. It creates a sort of lovely, melancholy, hair-raising feeling.
I guess I'm trying to say that he gets it, gets it in a way that isn't obvious or blatant or cheesy. What he does is almost impossible, but he does it, because he's Jimmy Herring.
On top of that, as he's done everywhere else he's played no matter who with, he's made the band his own... and the rest of the band has had the wherewithal to allow him to repeatedly take them down the rabbit hole. It's been 10 years and I still think of Jimmy as "new," but he is in Widespread Panic now as much as any of the other guys and goddamn, they are pretty freakin' great right now.
LISTEN: Ten Years Of Jimmy Herring & Widespread Panic
9/14/06 - Radio City Music Hall Jimmy's first show with Widespread Panic.
6/24/07 - The closing night of Jimmy's first Red Rocks Run with the band. Crazy good two-setter with Surpise Valley > Morning Dew > Mr. Soul encore.
11/8/08 - A+ show that helped solidify the legend of Milwaukee's Riverside Theater.
9/2/09 - As part of a "dream tour" with one of his old bands, The Allman Brothers, Jimmy and the guys tackle the entire Mom's Kitchen album in Chicago. And he gets to spar with both Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes.
10/4/10 - Panic makes their Ryman Auditorium debut.
5/2/13 - A mammoth single setter in the rain at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, just one in their many odd-year tradition
3/19/14 - Panic En La Playa is as close as WSP comes to throwing a Panic only festival. By the third show of the third edition, all the kinks are worked out. Jimmy tackles his old ARU staple "Time Is Free" with the help of some friends.
12/31/15 - Panic returns to The Fox Theater in Atlanta for a blow-out New Year's show and jam-filled third set and the Mega-blasters horn section.
9/10/16 - Old school show in New York close to ten years after Jimmy makes his Panic debut in the same city.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Aaron's excellent weekly newsletter Noted:: Nedsday. Sign up here.