Searching for the Holy Grail: Widespread Panic 4/3/96 Huntsville

holy album cover

The concept of searching for The Holy Grail is a hunt for an elusive if not impossible-to-find object, in its initial form prompting Crusades, The DaVinci Code and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In time, of course, it came also to refer to other hard-to-find treasures.

One such treasure, before the explosion of the interwebs, was the so-called Holy Grail of Grateful Dead tape collectors, the famous Barton Hall concert at Cornell University on May 8, 1977 (better know as 5/8/77). It was a hot item before digital music made it possible for the widespread sharing of such music. That doesn’t make it the best Dead show ever; there will never be consensus for that. But it is reverently regarded as an iconic show of epic proportions.

holy dead poster

The same is true if you ask Phish phans about the ‘greatest’ Phish show ever; good luck with that. There are many responses, but quite a few will point at the New Year’s Eve 1995 show at MSG as legendary. In both cases, we are talking about amazing bands who have played incredible shows previous to these and afterward as well.

Come we now to the 20th anniversary of what is, for me and many Spreadheads, the Holy Grail of Panic shows, 4/3/96 at the Von Braun Civic Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Back in tape-trading days, this was one I always offered up on the anniversary. It is available now on, on, on, and release 3 on the official Widespread Panic Archives CD.

Before we talk about this show, a bit of backstory. My first Dead show was 5/21/77 at the Lakeland Civic Center — Dick’s Picks 29 — which is forever etched in my brain. And then in February of 1993, on a slow Sunday shopping at my favorite music store (Sound Exchange in Tampa), Mike was working. We had discussed music often, and he knew what I liked. He walked over to me with two CDs in his hand and said, “You need both of these.” He was holding Lawn Boy by Phish and Everyday by Widespread Panic. To say my entire life changed that day would not be overstating the case.

My first Phish show was 8/2/93 at the Ritz Theatre in Ybor City (Tampa). My first Panic show as a month later at the same theatre on 9/12/93. (As a side note, it is interesting to see that the Phish show at Pier Six in Baltimore 7/19/93 was cancelled — reportedly due to insufficient ticket sales!)

Back to the Von Braun Civic Center in Huntsville, one of NASA’s main centers. For those of you who never had the opportunity to see Mikey, THIS is the place to start. It’s fair to say he was front and center on EVERY Panic show, but this one is special. He’s ALL OVER it.

Also, understand that I am in awe of Jimmy Herring and every project he has ever touched. I love what he has brought to Panic. But the original Panic sound centered around Mike Houser, and this recording is ample proof why.

holy photo

It starts with J.B. (John Bell) acknowledging the crowd: “Howdy, Huntsville!” in J.B. speak. Then they launch into “Better Off.” This song from Everyday was not often played, relatively speaking, and rarely chosen for the first song of the night (a dozen or so times). They offer a nice, terse version of the song. From there comes a great “Pigeons,” with David Schools and Todd Nance (bass and drums) sounding great in the middle section. Note that Houser is standing; he did not begin sitting at shows until 1997 (he did sit during previous Sit ‘n’ Ski tours, which is where he discovered that the numbness he felt using his volume pedal — almost constantly — was gone when he sat rather than stood).

J.B. says, “Here’s a Vic Chesnutt song” before they play “Let’s Get Down to Business,” and that morphs into “Radio Child,” new to the setlist a year previous. Houser just soars on his solo. “Pilgrims” has never been one of my favorite songs, but this one (like every other one) is so well played. Percussionist Sonny Ortiz is heard to perfection here.

Next, JoJo Hermann plays acoustic piano on a lovely jazzy short piece written by Scott Joplin called “Solace,” which runs directly into his New Orleans-dripping “1×1.” And that leads to “Maggot Brain.” Houser puts his stamp on this version. Hermann comes back for the rollicking “Can’t Get High.”

Unexpectedly, the crowd is then treated to a bust-out, the debut of Houser’s tune “Sandbox,” played only 24 times. And a tight “Papa’s Home” brings set one to a rousing close.

holy sandbox

J.B.-isms are famous among Spreadheads, such as “Back in two shakes.” He closed set one with a quick “Right back.” The second-set opening remark is classic: “It’s not rocket science!”

If there were any doubt about what is to unfold, “Diner” straight out of the gate answers all the questions. It is a great 13-minute version, and they are off to the races. “Diner” slides into a fast “Porch Song,” which segues into “Pleas.” Things slow down — briefly — with “I’m Not Alone,” a pensive tune beautifully presented, picking up tempo during the break. They return for the final stanza, and then…

Houser starts this repetitive guitar figure, Schools pumps up the volume on bass, and Hermann’s organ is along for the ride. And J.B. sings, “Tie your shoes. Tie your shoes…” I was so struck the first time I heard this live (7/23/97), before I got the Huntsville tapes, that I used it for my screen name and music blog. The jam is so high and so tight. Also, this is the period when many bands were rediscovering the almighty clavinet, staple of so much ‘70s funk music. Houser’s solo leads into Hermann’s on piano.

Then it gets ridiculously nasty as the six-headed monster twists and turns into “Arleen.” Oh, “Arleen!” There is a glorious call-and-response section: “No no no, I can’t STAND it!” “NO!!” Houser’s guitar work is just sick. Then they introduce “Satisfied” in the middle with Van Morrison’s lyrics: “Go to the mountain, Come back to the city Where a whole lot of things Don’t look very pretty. Spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst, But you got to change it On the inside first, To be satisfied.” Man! 14 minutes of magic.

Finally, “Arleen” smooths out into “Vacation,” yet another Houser vocal feature, which moves along leisurely until they get to his guitar solo. Many people regard “Drums” as an opportunity to get to the bathroom and/or grab another beer. I’ve always liked them, and this one is a sonic five-minute explosion from Nance and Ortiz. As Schools reenters, more nastiness ensues with a 12-minute take on Dr. John’s “I Walk On Guilded Splinters.” More Houser.

The final three songs of the set are pure Panic. First comes the bouncing “Blackout Blues,” Hermann on vocals. Then Houser’s dirty guitar introduces more wickedness via “Contentment Blues.” And that slows down — briefly —  into one of the fans’ all-time favorite show closers, “Love Tractor.” Nance is huge on this one, and all evening long.

“Thank ya very much there, Huntsville! See ya real soon!”

Sometimes you want to have your ass kicked one more time during the encore. Sometimes you want to go the other direction. This time it is the beauty of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” lovingly rendered after Schools says, “Thank you very much, Huntsville!”

And finally: Schools: “Goodnight!” J.B.: “Thank you!. We gotta go!”

Best Panic show ever? Who’s to say? It’s my favorite, for certain, and one I would recommend to anyone who wishes to hear Widespread Panic Mike Houser-style.


[DEAD 5/8/77 SET 1: Minglewood Blues, Loser, El Paso, They Love Each Other, Jack Straw, Deal, Lazy Lightning-> Supplication, Brown Eyed Women, Mama Tried, Row Jimmy, Dancin’ In The Streets; SET 2: Scarlet Begonias-> Fire On The Mountain, Estimated Prophet, Saint Stephen-> Not Fade Away-> Saint Stephen-> Morning Dew; E: One More Saturday Night]

[PHISH 12/31/95 SET 1: Punch You In the Eye, The Sloth > Reba, The Squirming Coil > Maze, Colonel Forbin’s Ascent > Fly Famous Mockingbird > Shine > Fly Famous Mockingbird > Sparkle > Chalk Dust Torture; SET 2: Drowned > The Lizards, Axilla (Part II) > Runaway Jim, Strange Design, Hello My Baby, Mike’s Song > Digital Delay Loop Jam; SET 3: Auld Lang Syne > Weekapaug Groove > Sea and Sand, You Enjoy Myself, Sanity, Frankenstein; E: Johnny B. Goode]

[WSMFP 4/3/96 SET 1: Better Off > Pigeons, Let’s Get Down To Business > Radio Child > Pilgrims > Solace, 1 x 1, Maggot Brain > Can’t Get High, Sandbox, Papa’s Home; SET 2: Diner > Porch Song > Pleas, I’m Not Alone > Tie Your Shoes > Arleen > Vacation > Drums > I Walk On Guilded Splinters > Blackout Blues > Contentment Blues > Love Tractor; E: Can’t Find My Way Home]

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