Bands tend to go over and above to plan unique Halloween concert experiences. Some wear disguises, the more unexpected the better. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain famously wore a giant oversized Barney the dinosaur costume during a rambunctious 1993 Akron, Ohio, show, while Korn drummer Ray Luzier dressed up as the affable “Frozen” snowman Olaf for a 2015 gig in Oakland, California. Other artists put in extra musical effort and work up elaborate themed sets. The jam band Phish, for example, bases Halloween gigs around cover songs; its concerts have included full-album performances of David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and the Beatles’ “White Album.”
Athens, Georgia’s Widespread Panic does all of this — and then some — for its three-hour Halloween 2019 show in New Orleans, which is a loving (and high-concept) tribute to the late Andy Kaufman. The mischievous actor and comic had been in the news that year — 35 years after his death, he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — though Widespread Panic’s decision to honor Kaufman was more a reflection of the band’s lighthearted sense of humor and reverence for pop culture.
The group’s stage garb and décor nod to various roles portrayed by the mischievous actor and comic Andy Kaufman.
The group’s stage garb and décor nod to Kaufman’s various roles, including keyboardist John “JoJo” Hermann sporting a jumpsuit à la the “Taxi” character Latka Gravas. Later in the set, Hermann changes outfits and sings a few chaotic songs in the guise of Kaufman’s aggressively untalented lounge singer Tony Clifton. And R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills guests on covers of Kaufman-referencing songs written by his former band — including a faithful, upbeat version of the 1992 hit “Man on the Moon” and a waltzing, twangy take on “This Friendly World,” a song from Jim Carrey’s 1999 Kaufman movie, “Man on the Moon.”
For good measure, Mills also adds barroom piano on a wistful version of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” and guitar and keening backup to a cover of Bowie’s “Starman.” He isn’t the show’s only guest. In a nod to New Orleans’ rich musical heritage, legendary Meters bassist George Porter Jr. sits in for the concert’s first two songs, renditions of his band’s “Chicken Strut” and “Hey Pocky A-Way.” The former finds Widespread Panic vocalist/bassist Dave Schools squeezing a rubber chicken into the mic for squeaky (and goofy) ambience; the latter — a long-time jam scene staple that’s also been covered by the Grateful Dead and the String Cheese Incident — is a funky, vivacious strut.
Widespread Panic had never performed any of those songs live before this concert, which is very in character: The band plays radically different sets every night and always throws in surprises. This always ensures that moments of irreverence arise — for example, in New Orleans, the band projects film footage of farm animals munching away during a rare cover of James Taylor’s “Knockin’ Around the Zoo” — though such frivolity never distracts from the music. And the band members carry themselves like the veterans they are, weaving together a measured, graceful performance highlighting their influences: evocative soul-blues, Southern rock, lilting jazz, smoldering funk, barnstorming folk.
Widespread Panic eases audiences into these eclectic grooves with a tightly sequenced and danceable first set. Early highlight “One Arm Steve,” its cascading guitar riffs particularly cutting, goes directly into the cosmic psychedelic boogie “Love Tractor” and its disco-like backbeat. Another well-matched pair, the extended blues-rock sprawl “Hatfield” and the straightforward heavy rocker “All Time Low,” share glassy piano and sizzling percussion. Singer John Bell ties these eclectic sounds together with weathered, smoky yet raggedly nuanced vocals.
Years spent on the road honing musical connection and chemistry account for the immersive soundscapes.
Years spent on the road honing musical connection and chemistry help account for these immersive soundscapes. During the concert’s looser second set, the strengths of the individual band members stand out. The camera lingers for close-ups on each musician during a segment that features “Surprise Valley” and “Arleen.” In particular, Hermann exudes the same kind of authoritative, professorial vibe that pianist Roy Bittan does with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, while Schools, eyes closed in beatific concentration, keeps the bass pulsing.
Jimmy Herring emerges as the concert’s quiet star. The guitarist, who wears a Santa hat in another Kaufman nod, is stoic and nonchalant as he coaxes out bluesy solos and lightning-bolt licks. Herring most of all drives the show’s emotional ebbs and flows — guiding his bandmates through lighthearted interludes and complicated musical maneuvers without breaking a sweat.
Unlike Kaufman, whose troll-like antics could sometimes overshadow his prodigious comic talent, Widespread Panic doesn’t let onstage jokes affect the playing. With a balance of obscurities and more accessible songs, coupled with worthy guest artists and displays of sterling musicianship, this Halloween performance rates as one of Widespread Panic’s flagship modern efforts.
Widespread Panic 10/31/2019 Setlist
Chicken Strut (Meters cover)
Hey Pocky Way (Meters cover)
One Arm Steve
All Time Low
Knocking ‘Round the Zoo (James Taylor cover)
Mighty Mouse Intro
Henry Parsons Died (Bloodkin cover)
Arleen (General Echo cover)—>
Spoonful (Willie Dixon cover)
Perfect Day (Lou Reed cover)
Starman (David Bowie cover)
Man on the Moon (R.E.M. cover)
I Trusted You (Andy Kaufman cover)
This Friendly World (Fabian cover)
Nel blu, dipinto di blu (Domenico Modugno cover)