The gargantuan beast of badass jam bands–known to many as Widespread Panic–finished their two-night stay in Birmingham, Alabama with continual heaters and a similar motif ever-present throughout the songs. Several of the songs from last night’s setlist mentioned guns and the violence associated with them as Panic paid their own unique tribute to the recent mass shooting. The next shows that Widespread Panic has scheduled are in Washington D.C., so last night may have been a sharpening of the political edge for the band. Though, the boys were just playing songs in their trademark, bluesy way; how the songs were interpreted comes down to the listener.
The six-piece band of musicians opened the second night of music with a mellow, but lengthy appetizer “Ribs and Whiskey” from their album Earth to America. Dave Schools provided the metronomic bass line with Duane Trucks, John Bell crooned about “Seeing your sister naked” and “I hope it’s not your daddy’s hunting day”, and Jimmy Herring and JoJo Hermann supplemented the sound with extensive guitar and keyboard diddles.
The band first touched upon an overarching theme with a cover of Van Morrison’s “Send Your Mind”. John Bell sang desperately, “And if you can’t come home… please send your mind” over the steady kick and snare of the drum. The succinct jam featured a short and sweet solo by Jimmy Herring before the band dove into the rolling rhythm of “Proving Ground” with both songs featured on their second studio album, the self-titled Widespread Panic. This song captured the jarring swing and has a rough around the edges feel to the sound. Jimmy Herring dazzled through several tempo changes, and one truly spectacular two-minute solo after one of John Bell’s hair-raising lyrical cries.
After a cymbal crashing finale, the band slowed down the tempo for a heart-warming rendition of “Walkin’ for Your Love” also from their self-titled album. The well-loved song possessed a skipping bass line and back-up vocals provided by both JoJo Hermann and Dave Schools. The band kept it old-school with a riveting version of “Holden Oversoul” from their debut album Space Wrangler. This song included a driving Trucks’ snare rhythm, mystical vocals from John Bell, and a slicing guitar work by Jimmy Herring. The musicians kept the energy levels through the roof with a psychedelic transitory jam that relied heavily on JoJo Hermann’s brilliant keyboard playing.
The jam emerged as “The Last Straw”–yet another track from Widespread Panic, which was last played on the band’s Halloween run in Las Vegas. Dave Schools and Jimmy Herring weaved a melodic quilt to juxtapose John Bell’s crooning verses. The music persisted and evolved once more, this time into the instrumental “B of D” which was last played in Milwauke in October.
To end the first set with a tremendous upswing of vitality, the band first delved into a raucous cover of Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns & Money” which was only performed once last year during their debut appearance at Peach Festival. This musical piece appended the aforementioned theme with lyrics such as “I’m an innocent bystander… And somehow I got stuck” and the repeated phrase “Send lawyers, guns, and money…The shit has hit the fan.” To conclude the first set with a dynamic explosion, Widespread Panic played the crowd favorite “Ain’t Life Grand” from their fourth album with the same name. The crowd went absolutely nuts, and the musicians executed their original tune flawlessly. The band last played this beloved song on New Year’s Eve in Atlanta and elected not to play it in Mexico this year.
When the musicians returned to their rightful positions, John Bell commanded an intimate performance of Michael Stanley’s “Let’s Get This Show on the Road.” John Bell sings the wonderful words of the song in his bone-chilling technique, and as any Panic fan knows he can change tones from crystalline perfection to the bottom-of-your-boot grimy at any given moment. Jimmy Herring nailed a kick-ass guitar solo and John Bell continues to cast entrancement spells with the rest of the band percolating behind him. The moral undertones returned with self-reflective lyrics such as “Well, the Lord chooses the good ones; and the bad ones use the Lord.” This song hasn’t been played since October of 2016, so it was welcomed back enthusiastically as one of the highlights of the night.
JoJo Hermann returned to their customary dirty sound with the lovable drunkard’s tale “Blackout Blues” from the album Ain’t Life Grand. JoJo whipped his piano into honky-tonk shape and took lead vocals while John Bell and the rowdily participating audience sang back-up vocals. Next, the musicians covered the song “Who Do You Belong to?” which was written by their Georgia neighbors, Bloodkin. The jumpin’ beat hammered by Duane Trucks and Dave Schools counters the off-the-wall guitar licks of Jimmy Herring and the boggy croak of John Bell. An extensive transition jam came next, featuring Dave Schools on funky bass, Jimmy Herring’s untamed guitar prowess, and synthesized flair from JoJo Hermann.
The band returned to their second album once again with a piercing version of “Mercy”. This song was only performed once last year, warranting the audience’s fervent response to the opening notes. John Bell’s vocals are so incredibly imbued with emotion that one can wonder what pain this man has undergone to be able to translate such feeling. Jimmy Herring was patient, but when he took over, he didn’t look back. Herring went intergalactic with Schools riding shotgun next to him, keeping pace by thumping the hell out of his bass. The percussionists professionally kept up with this audio barrage as Jimmy Herring rapidly spewed euphonic goodness and Dave Schools required a restraining order after the aggravated assault on his bass.
Yet another tune from the band’s self-titled second album followed with an extended version of “Weight of the World”. This song’s lyrics contributed again to the grand theme of the evening with “Children, too, fall to this weight of the world. All the time they fall… right there into the weight.” A sizzlin’ performance of “Big Wooly Mammoth” had the audience on their feet, clapping and dancing. This song was taken from their seventh studio album Don’t Tell the Band, and featured a spirited JoJo Hermann singing lead vocals and Schools summoning beats from his bass guitar’s fretboard. A wicked keyboard solo had JoJo’s fingers flying all over his multiple pianos. The energy throughout this performance was palpable and the audience reciprocated wholeheartedly by stomping and singing with rampant enthusiasm. Jimmy Herring slayed a guitar solo through an ample portion of midsection of the song and again at the tail end, but the highlights were when JoJo sang “You ain’t got time to worry ’bout mass extinction, just try and get along with the human beings” and “Everybody needs some weapons of mass destruction, Gonna kill you with a virus or a dose of radiation” which contributed further to the night’s motif.
The music segued right into the distinctive opening notes of “Papa’s Home” from their third studio album Everyday. The band played this song all the way through with no sandwiches or split verses. This song began in a slow and sentimental tempo before swingin’ upward to a fiery dance-inducing number with tinges of heavier rock n’ roll. Duane Trucks and Sonny Ortiz with his new kit were left alone onstage to practice their percussive crafts and beat the living crap out of their drums. The audience responded enthusiastically and kept dancin’, hootin’, and hollerin’ until Schools returned to stage to beat up his bass guitar some more.
The following jam featured a hearty call and response between the percussionists and Dave Schools before it evolved into the beloved favorite “Stop-Go” from their debut album Space Wrangler. Dave Schools drove a deliberate bass line while Jimmy Herring wove tight ribbons around the rhythmic foundations. John Bell entered the scene with echoing vocals that resonated around the crowded venue. The boys performed this tune many times in 2016, but only once in 2017–in St. Augustine. It’s one of the Widespread Panic’s most sought-after songs due to its feel-good tone, heavy bass, and all together quality composition.
Nearing the end of the second set, Widespread Panic segued right into the distinguishing bass notes of Vic Chestnutt’s “Blight.” The lyrics to this song expressed a stoic determination to remain positive through the “blight of you.” The musicians sizzled through this performance with John Bell and Dave Schools displaying impressive vocal work and Jimmy Herring scorching his guitar arrangements. Another lyric in this song–“With all the vapors that the vile humans brew”–contributed towards the moral themes of the evening. To finish the second set, the band performed an uplifting version of Jerry Joseph’s “Climb to Safety” in which John Bell implored the audience that “We must grab each other’s collar, we must rise out of the water.” The message was clear: as humans, we must do a better job and work harder to find some sort of resemblance as brothers and sisters of this world.
The apt musicians kept that fire burning right through the night and returned to the stage, thanked the audience, and presented Cat Stevens’ tune “Trouble” which hasn’t been played since Nashville’s New Year’s Eve run in 2016. John Bell began the song acapella, but the band soon joined in for a heart wrenching version of a poignant tune. The song added to the theme of social injustice with lyrics of “I’m beat, I’m worn, Shattered and tossed and torn, Too shocking to see… (too shocking to see)”.
The musical geniuses followed this emotional ballad with a raunchy cover of Tom Petty’s “Honey Bee” which they debuted on the Halloween run last year in Las Vegas. Dave Schools hammered home his bass portions, Jimmy Herring sawed into his guitar, John Bell begged for sympathy, and JoJo reflected his considerations with his keyboards. Widespread Panic then closed the night with a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” which is the quintessential argument in support of the argument of a political and moral theme. The band last performed this song in Milwauke in 2015. John Bell delivered such chillingly relevant lyrics as: “There’s one more kid that will never go to school, Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool” and “We got a kinder, gentler, machine gun hand.”
Always with some master design in mind, the music virtuosos designed their setlist around the tragedy that recently occurred Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left many dead. Even more so than usual, the band called for people to band together and be the “good people” that their fans so frequently claim to be. The call for brotherhood is usually a common theme throughout Widespread Panic shows, but the band demonstrated a sense of urgency over the last two nights. Their next shows are slated for a three-night run in Washington D.C., the capital of the nation, where they will have the opportunity to display their patriotism to the political figureheads in the figurative backyard of the White House.
Lawyers, Guns & Money
[Video: Fred Ramadan]
[Video: Fred Ramadan]
Rockin in the Free World
[Video: Fred Ramadan]
Setlist: Widespread Panic | Legacy Arena @ The BJCC | Birmingham, AL | 2/17/18
I: Ribs & Whiskey, Send Your Mind, Proving Ground, Walkin’ (For Your Love), Holden Oversoul > Jam > The Last Straw, B of D, Lawyers Guns & Money, Ain’t Life Grand (60 mins)
II: Let’s Get The Show On The Road, Blackout Blues, Who Do You Belong To? > Jam > Mercy > Weight of the World, Big Wooly Mammoth > Papa’s Home > Drums > & Bass > Stop-Go > Blight > Climb To Safety (107 mins)
E: Trouble, Honey Bee, Rockin’ In The Free World^ (18 mins)
Notes: ^ LTP 10/25/2015 Milwaukee (122 shows)