Widespread Panic : 10/31/2011 Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, IL

Widespread Panic’s 2011 touring season climaxed at an even greater crescendo than previous years, as fans were forewarned that the 2012 calendar would be much abbreviated with a short acoustic tour and vacation stop in Mexico being the only guarantees on the docket. Perhaps for this reason, the “special” shows like Halloween seemed even more unique and enjoyable than usual. Although I wasn’t able to attend the one night stand at the Aragon Ballroom in person, I had the next best thing: a copy of the DVD produced for the band by LiveJam HD. A relatively young company, LiveJam HD has only been in business since 2010, but unlike some of the other outfits that have been hired to shoot video of Widespread Panic concerts in the past, they seem to have a pretty good recipe for success. As I popped the DVD into my Blu-ray player, I watched the show unfold taking a critical eye to not only my opinion of the band’s performance, but the actual production of the DVD, camera-work, video quality, integration with audio sound, etc.

As other show reviewers have opined, the Halloween show this year was definitely fantastic. The setlist was peppered with an equal measure of unexpected bust-outs, oldies-but-goodies, and tried-and-true rock songs. One thing that impressed me is how clear the shots of the band members are, as I was immediately trying to figure out their costumes.  I found myself scratching my head wondering why John Hermann had headphones on (and the even dumber thought – “has he been wearing those all tour?”) until the light bulb went off and I realized he was Steve Bartman, the kid that cost the Cubs a shot at the world series several years back by grabbing a ball that was in play. But aside from getting a very clear look at the band’s various costumes – which isn’t always the easiest thing to do if you are at the show and not close to the stage – the other thing that struck me throughout the show was the very serious and focused demeanor of band members, both individually and as a whole.  If it were not for the impromptu breakdown with the crew at the end, I might have questioned if they were even having a good time.

But the performance was solid throughout, and that’s what counts. And what makes the DVD recording worth watching is that the folks behind the cameras shooting the footage, plus the editors and producers back in the film room doing the editing, actually UNDERSTAND the band.  Thinking back to videos like Panic in the Streets, the film crew was at times so oblivious to the interaction between the band members they would be focused on the wrong guy while somebody else was taking the lead.  That doesn’t happen here. In fact, the quantity of cameras used (eight total) and the wide variety of angles (behind the stage or above it, for example) give a fantastic insight into what’s happening onstage that  a fan pressed up against the rail wouldn’t necessarily see.  The jamming between Hermann and Jimmy Herring during “Bust It Big” is a great example of the cameras locking in on the action, and similarly, the “Chilly Water” sandwich is not only well played, but well chronicled by the cameras as the lead is tossed back and forth from member to member like a giant sonic football.

While the audio output isn’t really the responsibility of the film crew (I assume the band gave them a soundboard feed), it was integrated seamlessly into the video. Again, in probably an unfair comparison to Panic in the Streets, there were moments of that Athens recording when the video and audio footage weren’t even in sync.  It is almost humorous to point that out now, because the DVD product of the Halloween show produced by LiveJam HD is both competently executed and thoughtfully produced. They perfectly capture things like JB’s guttural growl immediately preceding “Time Zones,” or the tone and sound of “Degenerate” which makes it immediately evident that it is a Vic Chesnutt song, even though I hadn’t heard the song before.  As dark and scary Halloween shows go, this one had plenty to like:  more down and dirty bustouts from blues inspired “Tail Dragger” penned by Willie Dixon to “Iron Man” and “Godzilla” sandwich to open the second set which nods to Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult, respectively.  Although it almost got lost in the shuffle of other great tunes played on that night, “Wishbone” was played for the first time in over 20 years.  That tune was originally written by Willis Alan Ramsey, a Texas folk and country singer who also fathered “Geraldine and the Honey Bee” which appears on Panic’s Uber Cobra live album.  I had been warned that the slight flex in the floor of the Aragon might cause a problem with shooting video, but you can’t tell from the finished product.  The images are clear and sharp, with the only the glare from the stage lights ever distorting the video, which are the same lights that would be in your face if you were at the show live.

The other touches which make this DVD successful are occasional shots of the crowd and theater throughout the show. It is just enough to give the flavor of the fans and crowd, which is particularly neat on Halloween with everybody in costume, but also important based on the particularly tight bond and energy exchange between the band and its fans. It also highlights what a cool venue the Aragon is with its gothic style architecture and opera style loge sections. And finally, the last noteworthy touch is the great footage of the band, crew, and everybody intermingling onstage to play the cult classic and fan favorite “Werewolves of London” during the encore.  At that point, it is obvious that the band WAS having fun, as was everybody else on stage, in the audience, listening on the Internet “couch tour,” and very likely, fans who will watch the show on DVD in the future.

Aragon Ballroom Chicago, IL 10/31/11 is out now on LiveJam HD.