The sordid celebrations culminated to an epic conclusion last night in the nation’s capital. Widespread Panic put politics aside and threw one last hurrah in true festive spirit. As a cheers to the many people who were honoring the holiday, the band began the musical foray with a lively version of “Tall Boy”. This crowd-favorite foreshadowed the celebratory nature of the set ahead, glamorizing a life full of dusty barrooms and cold beer. Dave Schools, JoJo Hermann, and John Bell all contributed vocally as the audience was whipped into a frenzy.
Keeping the party going, the Panic progressed into “Up All Night” from the album Free Somehow. With his crisp vocal ability, John Bell astounded the reveling audience, most of whom appeared disheveled like they were indeed, up all night. After a brief pause, Dave Schools revealed “Little Lily” with his bouncing bass line. Guitarist Jimmy Herring carved notes around, effortlessly ripping two off-the-cuff, lightning solos. John Bell then took lead vocals with backup echoes provided By JoJo Hermann and Dave Schools.
The heaviness lingered, as the haunted organ notes emerged and “You Got Yours” erupted throughout the enclosed venue. John Bell sang honestly with hints of spite and spun the tale of unrequited love and desire from the album Bombs & Butterflies. Dave Schools provided back up vocals while hammering notes up and down his bass’s fretboard. The drummers smashed their kits energetically and JoJo set the stage for a monster Herring solo which exploded with enough force that the sound threatened to blow a hole through the ceiling.
To settle down the now frantic audience, the band eased into the beloved tune “Blue Indian” from Til the Medicine Takes, who’s album name is derived from this song’s lyrics. JoJo haunted the keyboards, injecting a honky-tonk feel of a swampy barroom into the sound. John Bell aced the sentimental tone and brought tears to eyes when he closed the song with the Michael Houser words “Brave Little Friend”.
The rough and rowdy intensity returned once the drummers began to beat the introductory rhythm to “Honky Red.” The Murray McLauchlan song was recorded on their most recent album Street Dogs. Schools pummeled a destructive bass line and Jimmy Herring extracted acoustic annihilation from the depths of his wizard staff. John Bell painted a colorful picture of desperation and thirst, giving a courteous lesson in manners and politeness. The song concluded with an explosive bang as John Bell shuffled to the microphone to admit “We’re keeping a bit greasy”. A moment later, the distinctive notes of “Thought Sausage” from the album Don’t Tell the Band rang out. The song unleashed a barrage of rhythms and tempo changes with consistently elevated levels of intensity.
JoJo Hermann took over lead vocal duties for another dynamic jam, “Bust It Big”. The lyrics “Beware of the man who builds monuments to himself” stood out considering the proximity to the White House and figurative headquarters of the United States Government with awesomely heavy drum accompaniment. Herring dazzled another lightning fingered solo and Sunny Ortiz slapped his drums like the powerful expert that he is before JoJo transcribed ancient knowledge with his unbelievable keyboard prowess. More Mexican Playa nostalgia was cathartically unleashed collectively with most of the audience chanting in unison to the words “Gonna call my shots and ride my liquor down…To Mexico!!!”
To close the last night’s first set, Widespread Panic stayed true their roots with “Protein Drink / Sewing Machine”, a tribute to their late great friend, Vic Chestnutt. The “Protein Drink” possessed that rough around the edges feel with violent outbursts of energy. A molly-whopper of a bassline was handled with ease from the bass guru, Dave Schools, and John Bell poetically raved about treefrogs, snow, and mushrooms with an interesting little improvisation about “promises, promises.” Schools lifted a mammoth solo from the depths of a deliberately induced silence, as Schools and JoJo led a fluid transition into the complementary “Sewing Machine”. As John Bell listed all the uses of a sewing machine with anecdotes, the Trucks, Sunny, and Schools machine pounded the steady rhythms like clockwork. Jimmy Herring waited patiently in the shadows before destroying his guitar sections. The song wound its course and ended a seventy-minute first set.
The second set carried the same intensity as the band hammered the drum-heavy “Rock” from their self-titled second album. John Bell took us back to Mexico once more to be a “Rock on my belly, lying on the bottom of the pool.” Sunny delivered his percussive abilities methodically with a heavier drive provided by Schools and Trucks. Herring revealed more wizard tricks to baffle and amuse the eager listeners.
The jaunty Alan Price song “Sell Sell” followed with its asymmetric song structure and standout double note sequence. Schools berated his bass with nuggets of musical depth, and John Bell promised that “the next one will be the best one of the year!” JoJo slid languidly across his keyboards before relinquishing control of the wizard, who weaved arcane knowledge around the percussionists’ aggressive rhythms and School’s barbarically violent bass riffs.
Dave Schools took lead vocals for a dirty version of the traditional blues song, “One Kind Favor.” The lyrics provide a walk through the cemetery for an otherworldly jam with a furious Herring guitar solo and a hammering bass and drums. The boys played this in Mexico earlier this year and were well-practiced to annihilate this tune. JoJo supplemented the ghostly tune with haunting piano precision.
A guitar-led segue fused into the introduction with “Pilgrims” from Everyday. John Bell echoed wails of emotional torment before a catastrophically intense jam followed a percussive breakdown and ended with a scorching Jimmy Herring solo. The song faded away to the tinkering of JoJo’s piano.
In its usual fashion, the band sculpted an extended rendition of J.J. Cale’s “Ride Me High”. With JoJo at the helm, his vocals and keyboard skills remained focal point with him reminding that “the less you want, the more you got, so don’t you cry for more!”. JoJo followed this lengthy jam with another one of his vocally led charges “Blackout Blues” appropriately for St. Patrick’s Day. The piano and vocals give JoJo the freedom to display his extensive talents on back-to-back songs. Though, Jimmy Herring still included one lightning bolt of a solo and the drummers and Schools hammered their notes maniacally throughout the jam.
For only the second time, Panic performed their new tune “Sundown Betty” which was debuted this year in Mexico at Panic en la Playa. The song featured fiery John Bell vocalizations, (“We never, never, almost never break!”) JoJo organ spillovers, another nasty Jimmy Herring guitar solo, and several percussive breaks. The performance was an entire minute longer than the debuted version as an extra section of jams was included near the middle-end of the song.
Duane Trucks and Sunny Ortiz held down the forts in a condensed but powerful drum showdown. However, soon the other band members reemerged from the shadows and Sunny’s drumming hinted upon the inevitable arrival of a dirty rendition of “Fishwater”. The wildly feverish jam concluded the album Ain’t Life Grand. John Bell took the audience “Down the street… to New Orleans… to drink more fishwater than any whale mama’s ever seen”, another obvious reference to the cheerful holiday and drinking like a fish. JoJo and Jimmy both took turns whooping up a cyclone of spiraling awesomeness which eventually sandwiches a mouthwatering version of George Clinton’s “Red Hot Mama” before returning to finish the last jams of “Fishwater”. The “Red Hot Mama” made use of the state-of-the-art visual displays, with dancing fire and women. The return of “Fishwater” brought about a hefty amount of “Mo, Mo, Mo’s” exchanged by both Dave Schools and John Bell. As the music faded, the musicians left the stage and ended a fervent second set.
When the band returned to their instruments, the opening notes of “Saint Ex” announced the first encore in its explosive rock and roll tone. Jimmy Herring ripped another electrically charged guitar solo, prodigiously, yet so effortlessly while the music built higher and higher until ultimately crashing down to the tremendous percussive crashes of Duane Trucks. The lyrics voiced by John Bell suggested that “Maybe, this is a lucky day…” to fit into the holiday’s four-leaf clovered theme.
Always full of surprises, Widespread Panic pulled another ace out of their wizard cloak with a debut of “Tura Lura Lural (That’s an Irish Lullaby)” that was popularized by Van Morrison’s guest appearance on The Band’s grand finale, the Last Waltz. John Bell left the audience spellbound, while Jimmy Herring retraced the vocal notes with his enrapturing guitar. To end the night in perfect Panic tradition, the band dove into a saucy and stompin’ version of “Love Tractor” from their self-titled second album. Whatever energy the ragged audience members had left, they spent every last morsel of strength to shake it to the lively harmonies and quick tempo and participate in raucous punctuations to the song’s jams in accompaniment to Dave School’s tremendous bellowing “Yee Haw!”. One final shred-tastic guitar solo by Jimmy Herring concluded the phenomenal three-night run in MGM at National Harbor, Maryland and John Bell bid that audience one last “Good night!”.
Every time this band performs, it is nothing short of brilliance. The extra time between shows gives the band more time to craft thoughtful setlists. From politics to binge drinking, the musicians capture a wide range of emotions with expert meticulousness. From start to finish, the world-class professionals deliver raw energy that few venues can even sustain. Widespread Panic will play their next shows during a two-night stay at Wanee Festival in the swamps of Live Oak, Florida. Until next time, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to be among the “good people” and until we meet again, I hope we “live long and lucky”.
Setlist: Widespread Panic | The Theater At MGM National Harbor | Washington, D.C. | 3/17/18
Set 1: Tall Boy, Up All Night, Little Lilly, You Got Yours, Blue Indian, Honky Red, Thought Sausage, Bust It Big, Protein Drink / Sewing Machine (70 mins)
Set 2: Rock, Sell Sell, One Kind Favor > Pilgrims, Ride Me High > Blackout Blues, Sundown Betty > Drums > Fishwater > Red Hot Mama > Fishwater (90 mins)
Encore: Saint Ex, Toura Loura Loura^, Love Tractor (21 mins)
Notes ^ First Time Played (Irish lullaby)
Check out the full gallery below, courtesy of photographer AJ Genovesi.