On Friday, Widespread Panic returned to Nashville in a blaze of glory for a three-night stay at the fabled Ryman Auditorium following their swampy desecration of St. Augustine.  The good ol’ Panic boys last played at the “Carnegie of the South” on the first night of 2016’s New Year’s run before moving to the more spacious Bridgestone Arena for the last two nights.  Before that, there were three multi-night runs at the Ryman, taking place in ’07, ’10, and ’14.  The Ryman’s pristine auditory space allowed the rockin’ jam band to explore a stripped-down all acoustic perspective on their repertoire.  The lucky few (less than 2,400 people) enjoyed what will undoubtedly be added to the upper echelon of legendary Panic shows that will be shared and talked about for ages to come. (see “Wood Tour.”)

After a deep-voiced house announcement advised the audience on the locations of the fire exits and issued a stern recommendation to hold off on smoking, John Bell walked on stage, alone.  At first, the small crowd was silenced in disbelief; but as the lone musician began strumming on an acoustic guitar, performing a bare-bones version of “Chilly Water”, the audience echoed JB’s gravelly vocals.  The stripped-down version was reminiscent of the infamous video featuring John Bell and Michael “Mikey” Houser on the porch of John Keane’s house in Athens, Georgia. John Bell was getting loose early as he added some quick-lipped scat to the musical melody.

The rest of the band joined JB onstage as Bell quipped, “You get a little nervous up here without yer buddies.”  Sticking to the band’s origins, the seated musicians casually cooked up a medieval romp through “Jack”. JoJo Hermann’s pristine piano sounds cut through the sound more noticeably in the toned-down setting.  JoJo remained in control for a “slippin’-and-slidin’” performance of Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country?” for the first time since Baltimore’s fall run in 2013, a gap of over three hundred shows!  This marks the 29th time that the song was performed, most likely as a tribute to the “Music City” of Nashville with an extensive history of traditional country music.

Widespread Panic returned to their own catalogue with JoJo’s piano whirling through a serene “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” before covering the Bloodkin’s “Can’t Get High.”  The band, who played this tune acoustically at New Year’s Eve 2017 at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta,  offered their musical congratulations to Daniel Hutchens of Bloodkin for recently wrapping up his forthcoming album.

Rounding out the rest of the first set with all originals, John Bell serenaded the audience through “Old Joe” before moving on to the biggest bust-out of the night with “New Blue.”  The rarely played original was performed for the fourth time ever and for the first time since 11/20/01 in Johnson City, Tennessee.  After JoJo’s piano closed the tune tinkling softly and the audience’s subsequent uproar, Dave Schools and JoJo led us by the hand with a peaceful walk down to the river, sharing vocal duties with JB for a smooth “Walkin’ (For Your Love)”.

Widespread Panic – “New Blue”

[Video: kara dishman]

The acoustic show format featured mostly consolidated song structures with a grounded Jimmy Herring more fundamentally involved the framework.  However, Widespread Panic jammed out to conclude the first set with their longest song yet, a ripping take on “Space Wrangler.”  John Bell sported the 6-string Gold Tone banjo (noted in panicstream.com as the “banjitar”) and skillfully wielded the instrument.  With each musician’s round of solos, each punctuating piano flourish, and JB’s nonstop, scorching banjo licks intertwined, the enthusiastic audience in their church pews exploded with appreciative shouts and applause. Panic summited the musical peak together in ecstatic celebration before fading out and walking off stage for set break.

Widespread Panic – “Space Wrangler”

[Video: karmacare1]

Returning for the second set in peak form and class, Widespread covered The Guess Who’s combination “No Sugar Tonight / New Mother Nature” after thanking the wonderful Edie Jackson, the ASL interpreter onstage with the band.  JoJo Hermann led the seated musical troupe through “One Armed Steve” in his characteristic bar-room style before a hot take of “Holden Oversoul” emerged to remind the sweltering audience that “summer was all there was.”

Going back to the roots of blues music, Willie Dixon’s “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind” doused the crowd of Nashvillagers with the Mississippi’s muddy Delta water, complete with sides of JoJo, Jimmy Herring, and Sunny Ortiz’s drums.   JB transformed from haunted bluesman to emotionally charged veteran of the road to sing a heartfelt “Gimme” for his friends, present and beyond, in this beautiful tribute to late founding bandmate, Michael Houser.  As the tearful audience wiped their eyes, JoJo’s piano carved a bawdy path through Willis Alan Ramsey’s meandering ragtime tune, “Wishbone.”  Last night marked the first performance of “Wishbone” since the band’s Broomfield Halloween run in 2014.

John Bell continued to display his multifarious talents by switching to a twelve-string guitar for a segmented “Driving Song” with all the majestic beauties of the pastoral, American countryside.  The laidback pace of the tune had all the qualities of a sunny drive, windows down, with all the time in the world, nowhere to be, not a care to be had. Widespread sandwiched a rare performance of “Tickle the Truth” in the middle of “Driving Song” just as they had the last time played in this year’s mid-March’s St. Panic’s Day run.  Just as a way there has to have a way back- ask Bilbo Baggins if you don’t believe me- the boys returned to finish the second half of “Driving Song” before taking a quick bite out of the instrumental “The Take Out.” Delicious “Take-Out” to be enjoyed with a cool drink in hand followed by “Porch Song” to finish this second set from the moon, “a heavy Earth exchange a lighter breeze.”  The bouncing lunar day culminated in one last percussive barrage before walking offstage for the second to last time of the night.

Upon returning from a quick break, Widespread Panic performed an exceptional cut of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.”  The Beatles’ tune was written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and hasn’t been played by the band since April 2014 for an acoustic radio performance at TRI Studios in San Rafael, CA that didn’t even broadcast all the songs.  Only two weeks before that, Widespread performed a rendition of the song as part of a four song encore five years ago on the closing night of Ryman’s 2014 run.   The audience lent their voices for the performance making it especially badass.  To close out the first night, Panic played their longest song of the night with a sweeping cover of Jerry Joseph’s “North”, which was co-written by Woody Harrelson while hitchhiking in Nicaragua.  Every member of the band had a chance to make the song their own with JoJo winning MVP with his piano breakdown.

As the band left the stage for the last time, the spirited audience filed out of their respective positions in the pews to enjoy an after show by Sam Holt & Friends.  Widespread Panic returns to the Ryman Auditorium for two more nights ahead.  In customary fashion, it will be a Saturday barn-burner, face-melter, and a Sunday service brimming with soul nourishment.  To the Goodpeople that bought the ticket and took the ride, enjoy your place on Mount Olympus with the best damn band in the world.

For a full list of Widespread Panic’s upcoming tour dates, ticketing, and more information, head to the band’s website.

Setlist: Widespread Panic | Ryman Auditorum | Nashville, TN | 8/23/2019

Set One: House Announcement/JB Greeting, Chilly Water, Jack, Are You Ready For The Country, Pickin’ Up The Pieces, Can’t Get High, Old Joe, New Blue, Walkin’, #Space Wrangler

Set Two: No Sugar Tonight > New Mother Nature, One-Arm Steve, Holden Oversoul, Weak Brain, Narrow Mind, Gimme, Wishbone, @Drivin’ Song > @Tickle The Truth > @Drivin’ Song, The Take Out > Porch Song

Encore: You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, North

* JB Solo And NO Water Was Thrown During The Song!
# With JB On Banjitar
@ With JB On 12 String Guitar

– ‘Are You Ready For The Country?’ LTP 11/12/13 Baltimore (321 shows) 
– ‘New Blue’ LTP 11/20/01 Johnson City (1,131 shows) 4th time played overall
– ‘Wishbone’ LTP 10/31/14 Broomfield (247 shows) 
– ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ LTP 4/01/14 TRI Studios (297 shows)