Widespread Panic returned to the stage in a blaze of glory ending the 54-day hiatus spanning from Pensacola, FL’s Sunday show on September 1st to last night’s show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Riverside Theater hosted the GoodPeople for Widespread’s annual autumnal jaunt. This run marks the fifth consecutive year that the crowd-favorite venue has welcomed fans for a three-night run a week before Halloween.
Getting underway, an introductory jam developed into the metamorphic cut from 1996’s Bombs & Butterflies “Greta” transformed the audience into a ravenous pack of feral dogs. JoJo Hermann—on lead vocals and keys—was accompanied by John Bell’s crooning echoes and Jimmy Herring’s screeching guitar riffs. Possibly as a nod to Greta Thunberg, this song contains the verse, “Mother Nature’s come to arms / She’s in a fighting mood / Greta’s got a gun / This ain’t no flowerchild!”
A smooth transition segued into a tribute to the recently passed Ginger Baker (most known for being the drummer in Cream with Eric Clapton) with a heartfelt “Do What You Like” being played for the first time since St. Augustine’s 2018 run. This was the only cover of the first set. WSP kept the nonstop flow of music coming as a ghostly “Blue Indian” emerged after the percussionists Sunny Ortiz and Duane Trucks slowed the tempo down to that of a funeral procession. JoJo teased the tinkling introduction of “You Should Be Glad”, which gathered speed and momentum until culminating into an absolute scorcher led by John Bell’s spirited vocals, Jimmy’s lightning guitar, as well as Dave Schools‘ impish shenanigans and bone-crushing bass guitar.
Staying within the band’s enormous catalogue of originals, Dave Schools’ bass line introduced “Rebirtha”, which contains the line for which the album Bombs & Butterflies’ name originated. With the World Series being played concurrently, the song’s fitting description, “I know a town where real life’s a game / Baseball’s all that’s real / At night all the faces light up / As the players take the field.” Though the Milwaukee Brewers fell short this year, Milwaukee, like Widespread Panic, had a decent season with a zealous crowd of fanatics hanging onto every moment.
Next, Widespread performed an emotionally driven rendition of late-founding guitarist, Michael “Mikey” Houser’s, “Travelin’ Man”, the final track on 2003’s Ball. This album featured George McConnell on lead guitar and was the first release following the loss of the band’s co-founder, the soul and heart behind so many ideas, melodies, and lyrics. Last night’s performance marked the first time this song has been played since the opening night of the St. Panic’s Day run in Washington D.C. 2018, but before that the song had remained on the shelf since a late June 2014 show at Starlight Theatre in St. Louis.
Another Mikey tune kept the tears flowing as well as the music uninterrupted, as the solemn opening notes to “Vacation” crashed down like a tsunami. The attending audience melted into puddles as JB’s voice paired with JoJo’s church organ (later switching to piano) to cut even fully armored knights into tattered pieces. The back-to-back Mikey tunes left this brotherhood full of a heart-bursting energy, arm-in-arm camaraderie as the pace quickened into a legendary jam to close the song.
The first set wrapped up with a bass-heavy tease leading into a demonstration of the true potential of their powerful amplifiers. Widespread Panic rebuilt the levees as the opening to “Chilly Water” dried eyes momentarily before flying vessels of water came crashing down on the orchestra seating.
Returning from setbreak, Sunny walloped his unique percussive kit alone before being joined by Duane Trucks for a rhythmic breakdown. As the rest of the band emerged from the shadows, Duane bounced right into an uplifting “Pleas” to keep the string of originals going through the second set. After Herring returned to the known galaxy from an unparalleled dimension, Schools chiseled out the jumpin’ beat to “Weight of the World”, off of their self-titled second album. Schools did what he could to ground the jam, but Herring’s unstoppable desire to fly eventually lifted the music back into the cosmos.
JoJo’s piano dazzled throughout “Cotton was King”, the whirlwind return to antebellum days off 2010’s Dirty Side Down that symbolically describes the early trading of the commodities: cotton, sugar, and rice. Back-to-back covers emerged for the first time of the evening, with Jorma Kaukoken’s “Genesis” leading the way with a momentous improvised jam in the middle. The second cover, “North”, co-written by Jerry Joseph and Woody Harrelson, followed as a nod of appreciation to the northern lands of America. To the Swamp Kings from Athens, Georgia, Milwaukee most be a veritable tundra, a place where the beer freezes as soon as it leaves the tap.
Their second most recent original, “Sundown Betty”, was performed for only the dozenth time since its early 2018 debut at Panic en la Playa 7 in Riviera Maya, Mexico. Yet another crowd-favorite classic was performed as Widespread Panic revived the long-extinct “Big Wooly Mammoth.” JoJo and Schools led the band through this science experiment that returned the prehistoric beast to Milwookie for an archaic romp with JoJo swapping the lyrics to, “Sometimes I feel like an evolutionary reject! / Livin’ in this V.R. world.”
Getting to the pulp of the second set, the Panics wound down with three consecutive originals. “Up All Night” painted the nocturnal struggle of a sleepless night in Savannah before JoJo retook the helm for “1×1, the mythical story of Sugarman and the collapse of the Clear Creek Bridge in 1939. To finish off the second set, “Pigeons” took psychedelic flight for a wild 10-minute jubilee.
For their encore, Widespread Panic performed two covers written by their friend Vic Chesnutt with the blue-collar anthem, “Expiration Day” preceding “Sleeping Man”, highlighted by Dave Schools on lead vocals. After an explosive conclusion, Schools stepped to microphone for the last words of the night with the blunt advice, “Get some sleep, you freaks.” With the first night complete and two more nights ahead, the veterans know the truth and sincerity behind Dave’s words. It’s a marathon, not a sprint; so good luck to the late-night crowd attending the Big Something afterparty as Saturday night’s show, which traditionally is a heater, looms ever closer.
Enjoy a gallery of photos from Friday night’s show below courtesy of photographer Daniel Ojeda.
Tonight, Saturday, October 26th, Widespread Panic returns to the Riverside Theater for the second show of their three-night weekend run. Head to Widespread Panic’s website for a full list of the band’s upcoming tour dates, ticketing, and more information.
Setlist: Widespread Panic | Riverside Theater | Milwaukee, WI | 10/25/2019
Set One: Greta > Do What You Like > Blue Indian, You Should Be Glad, Rebirtha, Travelin’ Man > Vacation, Chilly Water
Set Two: Drums > Pleas > Weight of the World, Cotton Was King, Genesis, North, Sundown Betty, Big Wooly Mammoth, Up All Night, 1×1 > Pigeons
Encore: “Travelin’ Man” LTP 3/15/18 Washington DC (62 shows)