Playing the right song at the right time has long been part of Widespread Panic's magic formula, and so it was again with their March 2015 concert in Los Angeles.
It seemed a bit surreal to think that it had been almost a year since Widespread Panic had concluded their 2014 spring tour with a pair of smokin' shows at the Orpheum in downtown Los Angeles. Yet not but just over 50 weeks later, they were back at the Orpheum again, with this pair of shows preceding a tour closing weekend in Las Vegas and Phoenix. When things go well, there’s a natural tendency to stick with what’s working, and Widespread Panic at the Orpheum has proven a winning formula.
The historic theater is a worthy venue, with great sound and quality pubs right nearby for pre-game eats and post-show libations. First opened for business way back in 1926, the Orpheum has some classic vibes. It hosted jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington back in the day, before the wave of rock ‘n’ rollers that came along in the ‘60s. This makes the Orpheum a particularly appropriate venue for Widespread Panic, since the band is long known for mixing jazz-inspired improvisations into their unique blend of rock ‘n’ roll. The venue’s only flaw remains its slim beer selection of just Budweiser and Bud Light, particularly puzzling in the era of a craft beer boom where many LA venues now feature local beers from the Golden Road and Angel City breweries. Hence, many fans chose whiskey.
The Spreadheads were out in force as usual, with some setting up small tables on the sidewalk out front to vend art, jewelry and other wares based on the band, as well as other perennial favorites like the Grateful Dead. Widespread Panic helps to continue the influential counterculture tradition started by the Dead, with their adventurous music steeped in classic American history and psychedelic jams and with the subculture that has risen around the band where fans can make a little money vending to help finance their live music addiction.
Spirits were high as the band came out rocking and fans suddenly surged into the aisles in what would become an all-night battle with venue security. The security guards would periodically shoo fans from the aisle, only to see them return shortly thereafter. The phenomenon was a clear demonstration of the passionate connection between the band and the fans who feel a compelling inner need to get as close as possible to the action. The uplifting melodic sound of “Wondering” was an early highlight, a tune where singer/guitarist John Bell always shines. JJ Cale’s “Ride Me High” is another perennial winner, with Panic turning the sultry blues groove into a hard-edged rocker that always hits the mark.
Something different from last year was a new face on the drum kit in the form of Duane Trucks, who has been filling in for Panic since longtime drummer Todd Nance went on leave for some personal time last fall. The younger brother of renowned guitarist Derek Trucks, Duane is a perfect fit for Panic. He’s steeped in the blues, and plays with Panic bassist Dave Schools in side project the Hard Working Americans. He just flat-out rocks.
Trucks was locked in with Schools and percussionist Sunny Ortiz as the energy surged with Panic classics “Climb to Safety” and “Up All Night”, two songs that feature a shimmering sonic majesty that is uniquely Widespread Panic. The band's dynamic light show doesn't hurt either, with some of the best psychedelia in the biz. Keyboardist JoJo Hermann and lead guitarist Jimmy Herring were dialed in here as well, as the Panic x-factor started to gel with Hermann laying down some signature organ work on the first tune and then some exquisite piano on the latter.
The first set rocked, but coming off a three-night run in Oakland, it seemed like perhaps the band was still working to crank their full mojo back up and that the biggest musical fireworks were still to come. So it was with the second set’s third song, “Big Wooly Mammoth”, a longtime fan favorite sung by Hermann. It was like an electric switch had been flipped as the band launched into the raucous groove, with fans suddenly surging up the aisles again, gyrating in unison as if to create a force field against the security guards who seemed helpless against the onslaught.
This energy carried over into a showcase rendition of “Barstools and Dreamers” that had to be one of the shining moments of the entire tour. The song started with a slow, bluesy simmer that grew steadily as Schools and Trucks built a massive groove that soon had the Orpheum crowd locked into a hypnotic collective consciousness. Bell was in top form with his soulful vocals and the x-factor clicked again as Hermann’s organ boosted the groove higher while Herring shredded some of his hottest licks of the night. Schools and Trucks were straight up crushing it here and it’s jams like this that have led fans to abbreviate the band as WSMFP.
Another peak moment would occur following the traditional drum jam segment with “Hatfield”, a majestic crowdpleaser about a historic figure who was able to conjure rain for drought-stricken Los Angeles in a bygone era of yesteryear. It was an all too fitting selection with California currently suffering from a drought of such historic proportions that NASA recently predicted the Golden State would run out of water in 2016 if drastic measures aren’t taken. Such an occurrence would lead to some truly widespread pandemonium, so the song’s appearance could hardly be a coincidence. Playing the right song at the right time has long been part of Widespread Panic's magic formula and so it was again here. Schools was in the zone, laying down a thick liquid low end that Hermann and Herring seemed to surf on top of while Trucks and Ortiz powered the groove higher with their tight polyrhythms.
Hermann starred on vocals again for the anthemic “Blackout Blues” to close the set, and there are few keyboardists in the modern music scene who impact their band at the high level that he does. A powerhouse cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” capped the encore with a blast, as Herring melted face once more while the whole band rocked out to send the Spreadheads back out into the City of Angels on a high to find some good beer.
Splash image: concert poster for Widespread Panic's show at the Orpheum by the Zen Dragon Gallery.