The group's deep grasp of Americana and classic rock makes Widespread Panic one of the modern music world’s greatest curators of American music history.
There were two distinct vibes around the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles as Widespread Panic prepared to conclude the West Coast run of their spring tour on the first Saturday in April. One was the relaxed mood of fans getting their drink on at nearby bars, eagerly awaiting the show. The other was the desperate urgency of those with fingers in the air, of which there were many, searching for that elusive extra ticket to the sold out show.
The Georgia-based jamrockers have been giving out free live soundboard streams of all their shows for at least the past year and it certainly hasn't seemed to affect demand. To the contrary, the band’s generosity with their music seems to be causing passion to increase. Casual fans get a chance to hear more of the band’s live magic, while diehards can take in every show if they have the time and inclination. Widespread Panic has always been a band of the people, but more so than ever in 2014 with their populist approach to getting the music to their devoted fans.
Many of those fans (widely known as Spreadheads or Spreadnecks, depending on one’s taste) will travel vast distances or follow the band on tour since Panic has a huge repertoire and is known for its ever-evolving improv jams. At least one fan at the Orpheum came all the way from Alabama, because seeing the band out west is considered a special event. But then there are those who can only catch a show or two, yet can still follow the tour by tuning into the free streams. Many fans may not be able to afford to download soundboards of every show, yet will gladly donate their time to listen to the shows live as they occur. A pregnant soon-to-be single mother in the Midwest might not have the resources to see any shows this year, but she can still get some spiritual sustenance from one of her favorite bands just by tuning in on the Internet.
“I sure could use some WSMFP in my life right now," the young lady messaged right before the Santa Barbara show streamed worldwide 48 hours earlier. The increasingly trendy acronym on social media stands for “Widespread Motherfucking Panic," reflecting a passionate endearment. The band had made their way down the west coast, leaving smoking shows in their wake at each stop before landing in the City of Angels for a two-night stand to close the run.
Opening the show with the triumphant “Tallboy” served notice that the band meant business, getting the show started with a bang. “Climb to Safety” was another perennial favorite that ignited the room, easily one of the most beloved tunes in the repertoire judging by the elation that greets it every time. The tune epitomizes the Panic sound, with an infectious organ line by keyboardist Jo-Jo Hermann, paired with melting melodic leads from lead guitarist Jimmy Herring over an uplifting groove from bassist Dave Schools, drummer Todd Nance, and percussionist Domingo Ortiz.
Singer/guitarist John Bell acted as a conductor on the groove train, with some of the band’s most heartfelt lyrics about the relationship we all seek with that special someone : “After all that I've been through, you're the only one that matters / You never left me in the dark here on my own / Feel the water rising, let me be your ladder / Climb to safety / I promise you'll be dry and never be alone."
The crowd sang along on the choruses, and the love in the air was tangible. There are surely some who see such a show as just a big party, and Spreadheads are certainly known as serious party animals. But there’s a special relationship between the band and its fans that transcends the status of a mere rock concert. This is music for adventurous souls that view rock and roll as akin to religion. Come see a show and there will be a vibrational healing for what ails you.
The jam wound down and segued into “Hatfield”, a historical tune about American “rainmaker” Charles Hatfield that references San Diego and Los Angeles and is thereby always on the wishlist at a Southern California show. Schools went to town with some deep flowing high-range bass soloing during the jam that felt like cool rain on a hot day, lifting the audience to another peak.
Nicky Sanders from the Steep Canyon Rangers had guested on fiddle the previous night and returned midway through the first set on the soulful “Time Waits”. This seemed like mere prelude though for “Can’t Get High”, a melodic gem where Sanders’ fiddle added an extra layer of sublime ecstasy to the proceedings. Sanders aided the band in a similar way on a gorgeous reading of Jorma Kaukonen’s “Genesis” that featured a transcendent jam with Sanders and Herring trading hot licks.
Sanders exited there but the band cranked things up with “Cream Puff War”, a rare tune from the Grateful Dead’s first album in 1967 but with an intro that sounded almost more like the Doors’ “LA Woman”. Setbreak followed a hard-rocking "Action Man" and was a festive affair thanks to the Orpheum’s large outdoor smoking section where fans could get some fresh air and mingle in leisurely comfort.
Bell sang of “angels on high” during the second set’s “Christmas Katie”, a relaxed sort of tune that comforts the soul before evolving into a hot jam down the stretch where Herring shredded his axe again. This served as prelude for the monstrous sound of “Chilly Water”, with a heavy groove from Dave Schools that may well have registered on the richter scale as the entire theater seemed to explode in unison. Fans spurted water into the air from their water bottles as is tradition on the classic tune, providing some relief as the Orpheum’s temperature continued to rise on what may have been the peak jam of the night.
But the treats just kept coming as the band welcomed guitarist Neal Casal to the stage for a couple of tunes. Casal’s main gig is with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, but he also plays along with Schools in their new side project Hard Working Americans. Casal is fast becoming a man about town after having guested with Furthur at the LA Greek Theater last fall, and he jumped right into down and dirty Panic rock mode on “Tail Dragger”. Casal is known more for his melodic and nuanced playing, however, and he got the chance to shine on a splendid rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Time Waits for No One”. The band played with what looked like a starry sky behind them, with Herring and Casal weaving their lines together in majestic fashion. Herring increasingly looks like a wisened old wizard and it’s fitting, since his skills in sonic alchemy are those of a true Jedi master.
The highlights kept flowing throughout the second set. J.J. Cale’s “Traveling Light” featured Hermann’s electric piano powering the Panic x-factor for another great jam that soared with polyrhythmic percussion and more smoking lead guitar from Herring. It’s one of those covers that the band owns, with a chemistry that adds up to a whole greater than the sum of the parts. A beautiful “Pilgrims” flipped the script, showing the band’s multi-dimensional sound with an uplifting melodic tune and cathartic flavor. There are few bands in the world who excel equally at major key songs and minor key songs, and Widespread Panic are certainly one of them.
When the band concluded a triple encore with a poignant “May Your Glass Be Filled” and a raucous “Ain’t Life Grand”, there was no doubt this had been a special show. Fans spilled out into the balmy night air afterwards, intoxicated by the performance they’d just witnessed (and maybe a few cocktails). Life seemed quite grand indeed.
Some deluded critics think of Widespread Panic as just a one-trick Southern rock band, but the band's deep grasp of Americana and classic rock makes Panic one of the modern music world’s greatest curators of American music history. With a debut album released in 1988, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should soon be calling the band's name.