Goliaths of jam rock, Widespread Panic, rallied their zealous followers for a scorching Friday night of music at the newly constructed Orion Amphitheater in Huntsville, AL. A ribbon-cutting ceremony dubbed The First Waltz was held two weeks ago with a stacked lineup of artists including Brittany Howard, Drive-By Truckers, Mavis Staples, and Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit. However, many fans viewed that as merely a soundcheck for the actual christening which was the collective debauchery to take place over the course of a three-night Widespread Panic run on Memorial Day Weekend in the deep South.

Widespread Panic took the stage to raucous cheers and immediately embraced a somber message with an opening cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World.” This was an emotionally charged performance in the aftermath of the recent mass shooting in Uvalde, TX that left 19 students and two teachers dead at Robb Elementary School. The last time this was performed was during Birmingham’s 2018 run after the school shooting in Parkland, FL. It’s absolutely soul-crushing to see the cycles repeating themselves with so little action to curb this outward aggression against defenseless students.

Widespread Panic – “Rockin’ In The Free World” (Neil Young) – 5/27/22

[Video: MrTopdogger]

Vocalist John Bell introduced the song with the appropriately, patriotic lyrics, “There’s colors on the street / Red, white, and blue,” before the message took on a darker tone with the somber lyrics, “There’s a lot of people sayin’ we’d be better off dead”, “Here’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.”

To follow, the rest of the first frame would be entirely original as JoJo Hermann’s organ introduced a playful “Coconuts” before WSP kicked open the screen door to the back porch of “Holden Oversoul”. Though “Coconuts” has been played every year for the last five, nearly half of those performances were at Panic En La Playa. Dave Schools stepped to the mic after “Coconuts” to interject “Welcome to Space Camp” before launching into the next song.

Widespread Panic – “Coconuts” – 5/27/22

[Video: taperhead1]

Schools anchored his bass into the flowing segue a-weighing “Little Lilly” before harvesting a bountiful “Cotton Was King”. After a quick pause, a scorching “Junior” preceded one last section of uninterrupted music before set break. To mark the beginning of the end, an uplifting “Pleas” segued into a hard-hitting “Worry” before digging up “Big Wooly Mammoth” to bookend the first frame. Jimmy Herring and JoJo took turns dousing the roaring fire with gasoline while Schools and Duane Trucks held down the rhythms with casual coolness.

After setbreak, Widespread Panic returned to blaze through the second frame with few interruptions. Death was still on their minds as they opened the set with “Dyin’ Man” and followed with a cover of Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die.” The tune was often performed by Col. Bruce Hampton, the cosmic mentor of many bands in the once-fledgling jam scene.

With one last pause after the second song, Panic proceeded to accelerate into the night without stopping again until before the last song of the set. Sunny Ortiz shook his rattles as JB delivered a bone-chilling “Mercy” before chasing the taillights of an improvised transition down a desert highway into Tom Waits’ “Goin’ Out West”— perhaps in anticipation of the upcoming weekend at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Widespread Panic – “Mercy” – 5/27/22

[Video: taperhead1]

The meat and potatoes of the second set came in the form of a massive “Machine > Barstools and Dreamers” sequence with “Chilly Water” and a drums section in the middle of “Barstools”. Smothering this hearty section in gravy, JB included a glorious and rare Sly & The Family Stone “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” rap into the mix.

All told, the uninterrupted stream of compositions and improvisation consisted of over an hour of jammed-out heaters. To conclude the second set after a quick pause, the Panics paid tribute to Tom Petty with a stingin’ cover of “Honey Bee”.

For Friday night’s encores, Widespread hammered home the theme of the night with a heartfelt cover of Pop Staples’ “Hope in a Hopeless World” before JB led the listeners through an honest performance of Vic Chesnutt’s “Expiration Day.” Panic concluded the first night with a psychedelic flight through “Pigeons”.

A triple selection of encore tunes on the first night. Hold on to your hats, folks, this weekend is about to get especially weird. As always when Panic performs down south, you know it’s going to be hot.

There were after-parties for the late-night crowd but with two more nights of WSP, it’d be wise to make sure there was gas in the tank to give this incredible band the energy they deserve. God have mercy on any soul that misses a beat. Until tomorrow, Goodpeople.

Setlist: Widespread Panic | Orien Amphitheater | Huntsville, AL | 5/27/22

Set One: Rockin’ In The Free World, Coconut, Holden Oversoul > Little Lilly > Cotton Was King, Junior, Pleas > Worry > Big Wooly Mammoth (75 mins)

Set Two: Dyin’ Man, Fixin’ To Die, Mercy > Jam > Goin’ Out West > Machine > Barstools and Dreamers > Chilly Water > Drums > Chilly Water > Barstools and Dreamers, Honey Bee (83 mins)

Encore: Hope In A Hopeless World, Expiration Day, Pigeons (22 mins)

Notes – ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ LTP 2/17/18 Birmingham (124 shows)

– ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ rap during ‘Barstools and Dreamers’