In the year Y2K+1 however, it seems arena rock would rather pamper your ass than kick it. Whereas yesteryear's concertgoer was a rugged creature, perpetually crushed against metal barricades and billy-clubbed by overeager security, I found myself snugly nestled in the supple upholstery of a lounger with lumbar support, my hindquarters floating weightlessly as if on the wings of some mythical swan. Looking for warm beer and shelled peanuts, I found only lemon microbrews and gourmet food items with such un-rock names as "broasted focaccia" and "basil grilled shrimp Greek salad."
Amidst these pansy accoutrements, it was Widespread Panic's job to prove that arena rock can still rawk in that pure, fist-pumping way we used to know -- a challenge of profound implication. And so the mission was presented: preserve the honored reputation of arena rock or dig its grave even deeper.
The band's opening number, "One Armed Steve," found them in good position to meet the challenge. The high-energy guitar/organ melody and the sing-along-friendly chorus had the crowd of assembled 'Spread-heads worked up in proper arena fashion. The energy was there, but it was more felicitous than ferocious.
The fist-pump was replaced by a more gypsy-inspired falling-shower hand movement. Lighters were flicked, but instead of being held aloft and waved in an act of rock solidarity, they were held behind cupped hands and passed over colorful glass pipes. Still, the effort was there -- a hopeful sign.
While Widespread Panic gets lumped into the oversimplified jam-rock category, "One Armed Steve" was the first of several songs they would play that testifies to their abilities as compact, solid songwriters. Of course, the staple spacey atmospheric forays were there, as in "Little Lily" a few songs later, but as with the best improvising rock acts, Widespread worked to strike a prudent balance of tight and loose throughout the show. The only weakness came in the fact that the variety dynamic itself grew somewhat predictable, with a repeated pattern of high energy build-ups followed by a slower, spacious breakdowns, and epic jams followed by more straight-ahead concise tunes.
Late in the first set, the band performed an improvised version of "Driving Song" and "Arlene" that would prove to be one of the highlights of the performance. For a moment I thought I saw the old red and orange color schema of the Omni, as the spirited audience participation and general energized frenzy of "Arlene" took me back to the rock of that arena's bygone era.
This story doesn't have a completely happy ending, however. The second set dragged a little and found a slightly more listless crowd. I witnessed a kid talking on his cell phone during the concert -- something so spiritually egregious and yet so typically year 2000, it shocked me right back into the reality of my cush, weenied generation.
About halfway through that second set, all the members of the band except percussionists Todd Nance and Sunny Ortiz left the stage. The two drummers were joined by an ensemble of guest percussionists for an extended rhythmic jam. While one of the more interesting and unique moments of the whole performance, the professional drum circle seemed somewhat incongruous for the venue and the event. Arena rock this was not.
So I guess the fate of arena rock remains in limbo. One concertgoer I talked to in the posh digs of the club level lounge put it best, however.
"With all these creature comforts, does rock 'n' roll still kick ass?" I asked. "Yes, but a different kind of ass," he replied.
"A more controlled ass."
What a riot.
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