A Widespread Panic show at Red Rocks is a time when your neighbor will politely turn down a joint by lighting one of his own and offering it to you. The scraggily-haired, unshaven twenty-something hippie on your left hugs the middle-aged woman to his right, and the drunken fraternity brothers in front of you high-five at each new song and try a little too hard to make out with their dates. One of them, tripping over his own legs and falling backwards, keeps dancing even as he lands hard on his ass. It’s either the music or the bottle of gin he snuck into the show that keeps him from feeling any pain. Security is pretty lax: the crowd dance along and sing what words they know, unless you’re standing in the aisle in which case you’d better move fast.
As a whole, the unassuming Georgian sextet looks less like a rock band than they do a group of truckers, weathered from the road but thankful to enjoy a breath of fresh air. At center stage, guitarist and lead vocalist John Bell stands coolly in a white button-down shirt and black pants, a pair of sunglasses shields his eyes from the still-setting sun. To his right, the white pony-tailed and bearded Jimmy Herring plays his Fender Telecaster like it’s an extension of his body. Playing seems to take no more effort for him than eating a bowl of hot chili; an occasional bead of sweat drips from his face and a deep breath now and again. At stage left bass player Dave Schools, in a black t-shirt and jeans, long black hair falling straight on his shoulders, stares calmly at the audience with a comfortable smile on his face. Behind them, keyboardist John “Jojo” Herman, drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo Ortiz, all clad in plain t-shirts, are equally at ease and keep the show alive with their own energy and uncanny ability to follow each other’s musical paths.
With plenty of daylight still ahead, Widespread Panic took the stage for what was to be the first of three shows at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. Calmly behind his guitar, a mellow and earthy tone flowing from each, Bell struck the opening notes as the band opened with fan favorite “Airplane” to a healthy and thankful roar from the crowd. And though the chorus sing-along was a loud “Well, I got a feeling / That I’ll be soon leaving,” it was clear that everyone – fans and band alike – were just getting ready for the beginning of a long weekend. The comfort level was clear at this point, and the band slowed it down for the thankful-for-love ballad “Vacation”. A slow but moving jam led by Herring’s incredible guitar chops segued smoothly into “Pigeons”, a straight ahead southern rock tune with some groovy bass lines courtesy of Schools.
With the exception of a guest appearance by saxophone extraordinaire Karl Denson (who was scheduled to play a late-night show that same evening in nearby Denver), the rest of the night was more of the same: one standard but solid song into another, each more fun than the last. The addition of Denson’s brass on “Red Hot Mama” brought some extra funk to an already bumping tune, and as they moved into the more ambient melody of “Tie Your Shoes”, the airy notes and agile crescendos he provided sent many of the onlookers into a trance.
As any fan of the jam will tell you (and perhaps many spiritual guides as well), the best energy in the world is unrehearsed and unplanned, and happens when you least expect it. To put it simply, with an array of songs of varying tempo and vibe, Widespread Panic put on a hell of an entertaining show. Though their songs are not as orchestrated as those of Phish, their main “rival” on the jam scene (the term “rival” is used loosely, of course), their improvisation certainly has a natural energy about it. This is what separates Panic from the rest. Some jam bands follow a specific path for each song and improvise off of that, while others noodle aimlessly and hope to achieve greatness. Panic combines both of these techniques to come up with something more inspiring than can be said for most who follow in their footsteps.
The lyrics of a song never seem to carry much weight with the fans, but as Bell sang out the unmistakable joyful cry of “Ain’t Life Grand” to close the evening’s show, the thousands who remained standing were convinced that what he sang was true.