Photo credit: CREDIT
The colorfully clad masses began to descend upon the usually quiet rolling hills of Kansas City’s Swope Park shortly after lunch, eagerly anticipating Widespread Panic’s post-Independence Day show that evening and taking full advantage of the second day of a long holiday weekend. A sometimes sporadic but steady flow of small, sporty SUVs (a popular pick among this tie-dyed and Birkenstock sporting crowd) and other bumper sticker bearing automobiles (most offering a summation of the owner’s unique socio-political beliefs with a few witty words and a couple of popular psychedelic icons) quickly dispersed about the park with many making their way towards the flying disc golf course. (Thankfully, it wasn’t anywhere near the heavy stop and go highway traffic that delayed enthusiastic travelers the previous weekend for Bonnaroo, the three-day jamband extravaganza in Manchester, Tennessee.) Trunks opened, beer coolers appeared, the muffled sound of Widespread Panic could be heard issuing from a few faraway car speakers (possibly a previous night’s performance from their current tour), and wisps of the pungent aroma of pot could be caught floating through the air.
For touring veterans Widespread Panic, these early summer days marked the beginning of what usually amounts to one or two months of solid concert dates. Rising from the collegiate ranks of the active, late-‘80s Athens, Georgia, music scene, they prided themselves on being the antithesis of fellow local rockers REM. For bands like Widespread and their jamband cousins Phish, String Cheese Incident and the half-dozen other groups that have stepped to the fore since Jerry Garcia’s unfortunate passing, success hasn’t be found in album sales and radio airplay; instead, it’s been earned night after night, one town at a time, and often one grueling tour after another. Now 15 years later, Widespread’s enduring popularity flies in the face of conventional models regarding how to survive the cruel, cutthroat, and cookie cutter world that is today’s music industry.
Between beers and joints, the primary topic of conversation around back bumpers and hacky sack circles centered primarily on the health of Widespread’s lead guitarist, Michael Hauser. Rumors had been floating among fans and online communities since February that he was diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer and was the real reason for the cancellation of the band’s highly anticipated European tour. Meanwhile guitarist and lead singer John Bell, bassist David Schools, keyboardist John “JoJo” Hermann, percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, drummer Todd Nance and Hauser himself so far have remained silent concerning these speculations. Yet Hauser’s absence and replacement two nights earlier in Milwaukee sent a clear signal that something was amiss, leaving many fans to ponder if he would be playing tonight.
This wasn’t the horde of 70,000 people that marked the daily average attendance of Bonnaroo. Instead, Starlight Theatre—an outdoor amphitheatre that can hold nearly 8,000 people—was only a quarter of the way filled for the opening act, the New Orleans-based jazz/jam/funk outfit Galactic. Even by the evening’s end, the venue was only filled to two-thirds capacity. Head count aside, however, Starlight proved to be a beautifully accommodating setup, heightened by the stage’s impressive brick façade and flanked on either side by the theatre’s signature towers capped with copper roofs turned turquoise with age.
It was readily apparent as the crew began to reset the stage for Widespread that Hauser, who usually sits in front of his amps on stage right, wouldn’t be joining the group this evening. Yet before the full weight of this realization hit the audience, Ortiz appeared onstage riding a bicycle and sporting a miniature fez precariously tilted forward on his head. After a few moments of cheering from the crowd, he was joined by the rest of the band which including guitarist George McConnell and was appearing to be more than just a temporary stand-in for Hauser.
Leaping headlong into the sultry evening’s festivities, the band launched into a thundering cover of Van Morrison’s “Send Your Mind”. McConnell quickly found himself in the spotlight, taking a relatively short but impressive guitar break. Between verses Bell cheated towards the band’s newest member, offering a strong show of support that would play itself out over and over again over the course of the evening. Moving quickly, the group immediately followed up with two staple selections, an energized rendition of “Space Wrangler” and an intensely driving version of “Henry Parsons Died” that featured the band’s longtime friend and occasional guest saxophonist Randall Bramblett. Following with the heaving loping funk of the Bill Withers original “Use Me”, which gave Hermann the opportunity to showcase his capable Hammond organ chops, the group rounded out the rest of the first set with a number of tried-and-true standbys from their repertoire.
After a short set break, which finally saw the sun mercifully slip behind the trees, the band opened their second set with two hard-edged rockers, “Give” and “Papa Legba”, before debuting a new number, “Get In Get Out”. This ‘70s Tower of Power-style funk number found Bramblett claiming the lead vocal honors and capably commanding the moment as McConnell was able to make one of the few statements for the evening that couldn’t invite comparison between himself and Hauser. Whereas the first set featured the band’s usual extended improvisational forays, the second set was a near endless flow of songs with each seamlessly segueing into the next, doubtlessly to be notated by the trusty “>” symbol scrawled in the notebooks held by the tapers standing among the sea of microphones in front of the soundboard.
The obligatory drum break, which was augmented by the prowess of Galactic drummer Stanton Moore and drawn out to nearly 30 minutes, signaled that things were beginning to move towards the night’s inevitable conclusion. The dirge like drone of “Mercy” slowly mutated into the show’s closer, a wildly raucous “Chilly Water” that had people emptying their bottles into the air in tall, wet arcs of cool water that were rendered electric by the non-stop light show. Stepping back onto the stage for short encore, the band offered up another Van Morrison cover. This time “And It Stoned Me” set a more reflective mood to things, helped along by sweetly singing solos by both Bramblett and McConnell, before finishing the night with a concise but solid version of another road-worn tune, “Travelin’ Light”.
All in all, Widespread Panic proved that things are business as usual for the band, a remarkable statement considering that the final confirmation of Hauser’s battle with cancer would come less than two weeks later in the form of a personal note on the band’s website. Hauser’s note, short and to the point, concludes simply, “I have hopes of playing again soon, although I can’t say for sure when or where, and I hope to see you all there.” Doubtless most Widespread Panic fans are praying that they will have the chance to see that day come, too.