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Widespread Panic

Though life's always been a party for fans of Widespread Panic, recent events have turned their music's shade a bit more blue. Guitarist Michael Houser died of cancer last year, and the group's new album, "Ball" (Sanctuary), reflects on his death. Their Wiltern show also touched on Houser's death, adding some weight to Panic's Southern rock.

Though life’s always been a party for fans of Atlanta’s Widespread Panic, one of the top bands on the jam-band circuit, recent events have turned their music’s shade a bit more blue. Founding guitarist Michael Houser died of pancreatic cancer last year, and the group’s new album, “Ball” (Sanctuary), reflects on his death in ways both direct (the final song on the album is also the last song Houser wrote) and indirect (the pain in singer John Bell’s wail has never seemed more real). Their Wiltern show — the last of a three-night run — also touched on Houser’s death, adding some weight to Panic’s relentless Southern rock.

The band opened with an acoustic set, which reined in the extended solo sections that dominate their rowdier material. Though arrangements were largely unchanged, it revealed the heart of many of the band’s songs. Bell’s voice — a husky growl sometimes hidden in the two-guitar roar — was exposed and vulnerable, adding a rare intimacy to the set. “Pretty soon I met a friend/he played guitar,” he sang during a set-closing cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied.” The lyric’s proximity to Houser and Bell’s relationship wasn’t lost on the crowd, which wildly cheered as Bell continued, “We started a band/we played all night.”

All of this could be daunting to Houser’s replacement, George McConnell, but the all-electric second set’s focus was on his role. He’s a more fluid guitarist than Houser, and his sometimes-lengthy solos were served with a sense of direction more than experimentation. Bell was happy to play the supportive parent; he gave McConnell nods of approval and ambled over to McConnell’s stage position to trade licks during the Tom Petty-ish “Don’t Want to Lose You.”

The band’s energy declined after an overextended percussion breakdown (featuring guests John Molo, Cecil Daniels and Matt Abts), but most of this show was more focused than free-rein, with a sense of relevancy that never seemed overbearing.

Widespread Panic play New York’s Madison Square Garden Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.

Widespread Panic

Wiltern; 2,200 capacity; $37.50

  • Production: Presented by Clear Channel. Opened Aug. 1, 2003; reviewed and closed Aug. 3.
  • Crew:
  • Cast: <b>Band:</b> John Bell, JoJo Hermann, Todd Nance, Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, Dave Schools, George McConnell. <B>Guests:</B> John Molo, Cecil Daniels, Matt Abts.
  • Music By: