The festivities started with a bone-chilling breeze whipping through the streets of New Orleans in all its autumnal glory. The skimpier costumes took shelter inside the UNO Lakefront Arena, where the anxious excitement radiated body heat for those that could not be warmed by whiskey. After the skeleton crew put the finishing touches to the Martian landscape that decorated the stage and the crowd grew restless with anticipation, Widespread Panic walked on stage to thunderous applause.
In celebration of the All Hallows Eve, the roguish knaves performed four tunes for the first time ever—including the debut of a new original composition—as well as a four-song encore selection.
John Bell, dressed as “Space Ghost”, welcomed the audience before launching into a raunchy “Fishwater” opener, switching the lyrical beginning to: “Get off the train / Get me here in New Orleans!”
Another Crescent City-inspired tune followed as John “JoJo” Hermann—dressed in a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde costume—took the vocal lead for a rousing run-through of “Bayou Lena”. The song is derived from John Kennedy Toole’s tragicomedy Confederacy of Dunces, and includes aspects of the plot, setting (the Night of Joy), and characters (Lana Lee).
Continuing the interstellar theme, Panic kicked its spurs into a rowdy “Space Wrangler”. JB’s crisp vocals were outmatched only by Jimmy Herring’s rocket-fuel guitar riffs as the band traveled at nearly the speed of light to keep up. For the first of four debuts of the evening, JoJo’s piano introduced David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”.
Widespread Panic – “Life On Mars” (David Bowie) – 10/31/21
[Video: Fred Ramadan]
Returning to the catalog of originals, Widespread opened the door to “Holden Oversoul” for “A new air / pushed a full wind / That brought worlds on through.” Jimmy Herring steered the shuttle toward the edge of a black hole’s gravitational field and manipulated the centripetal forces to slingshot into an uncharacteristically funky improvisational jam.
What emerged was a desolate cover of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues”. Dave Schools held down the haunting bassline while JB howled his lonely desperation like a man with one foot in the grave and a bullet in his belly. Herring took this blues traditional, dissected it with his electron scalpel, and spliced alien DNA into the genetic code of its deep roots at Dockery Plantation.
Schools gave a maniacal chuckle after a false start halted the introduction of “All Time Low”, admitting, “We have to make it just exactly right!” It’s a testament to the band’s work ethic; after three decades of touring, they still chase perfection with every note.
After A.T.L. (possibly in honor of the ATL Braves who were competing in Game 5 of the World Series), the spirit of Halloween persisted as JB opened “Pilgrims” with the lines, “A black cat crossed our path” and later improvised, “It’s only the first time, that one time.” JoJo’s piano slashed through the mix to tease Professor Longhair’s “Red Beans” before finishing with one last scintillating flourish.
The second debut of the evening followed after a brief pause. This time, it was original material. The dark but groovy composition was appropriately titled “Halloween Face”. The lyrics befit the spooky theme: “Shake dem bones” to JoJo’s clavinet, “Dr. Jekyll’s hide” (a subtle nod to JoJo’s costume), “I’m gonna lick my lips and feast on the dead / they’re so delicious to me.” The song progressed through the cob-webbed crypts, past J.R.R. Tolkien’s balrog, and ended with a final descent into the infernal abyss of a scorching underworld. “Halloween Face” gets my stamp of approval based on the closing jam alone.
Widespread Panic – “Halloween Face” – 10/31/21
[Video: Fred Ramadan]
To close out the festive first set, Schools pounded out the heavy rhythm to “Imitation Leather Shoes”. The percussionists, Duane Trucks and Sonny Ortiz—who were dressed up as Zaphod Beeblebrox from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy and a Garbage Man, respectively—channeled their aggression to hammer home the tune inspired by Franz Kafka’s supernatural novella, The Metamorphosis (“My little brother is an insect / he likes to crawl around his room / his mother shudders at the sight of him”).
The dedicated audience refueled and refreshed, waiting with great anticipation for the second act. When the band returned from the shadows, it was to dole out another round of tricks and treats. Panic commenced the set with the third debut of the night, R.E.M.’s “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”. As rockers starting out in Athens, Georgia, R.E.M. were trailblazers on the scene and became a prototype for the aspiring WSP musicians. In 2019, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills joined WSP on-stage during the unforgettable Andy Kaufman-themed Halloween.
The set continued with a celebratory performance of Skip James’ “I’m So Glad” in honor of the band’s mentor, Col. Bruce Hampton. In the reboot, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, Col. Bruce voiced Warren the Plant, which sat stoically on stage in his memory.
Challenging the limits of reality, WSP began constructing one of the most massive sandwiches to date. Like going out for a drink and returning five hours later, the first half of “Driving Song” pulled out of the driveway and didn’t return until almost forty minutes of consecutive music later.
The incessant stream continued with the fourth debut of the night, “Zigzagging Through Ghostland”, a cover from New Orleans’ musical legends, The Radiators (“Who knows what evil lurks? The shadows do!”). The jazzy number segued into the more familiar clavinet sound of J.J. Cale’s “Ride Me High”. Schools roped Herring back into this dimension before dissolving the rhythm in favor of the spiraling madness of “Tie Your Shoes”.
Keeping the wisdom of Daedalus in mind, Herring flew far from the grounding percussions and introduced a soaring “Saint Ex” (“Saddle up the planet ride to the heart of town”). The song’s build-up and breakdown of tempo and intensity was influenced by the incredible story of a German pilot shooting down his favorite author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—of The Little Prince notoriety—in World War II. Herring wielded his guitar like the Red Baron’s minigun, firing notes with reckless precision into the venue’s acoustic space.
Almost an hour later and nearly out of gas, WSP navigated its vehicle home, guided by Sonny’s wind chimes, and into the latter half of “Driving Song. With hardly a moment to think, Panic immediately sliced with the serrated edge of George Clinton and P-Funk’s “Red Hot Mama” to cut through the silence. (“Red hot mama from Louisiana…”)
Winding down the second set, JB brought out his mandolin for a tribute to Daniel Hutchens with Bloodkin’s “End of the Show” before closing the frame with Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave”. Last night marked only the third performance ever of this cover. In 2016’s Fall Tour, WSP covered Black Sabbath and The Doors in the weeks leading up to Halloween, and the LTP was on this tour in Milwaukee.
Widespread Panic – “Children of the Grave” (Black Sabbath) – 10/31/21
[Video: Fred Ramadan]
The best treat of the evening came last- but not least- as Widespread Panic settled back onstage to revel in a quadruple encore selection. For the fifth time ever, Bloodkin’s “Trashy” led the charge and each line seemed to take on a new meaning: “I’ll cross the cosmos once I buy a truck,” “Living here on this street / every night is Halloween / My neighbor turns on all the trick-or-treaters / with high voltage jellybeans,” “I’m a beat-up rock and roll ghoster” and don’t get me started on the “time-travel blast.”
Panic returned to its own repertoire for a double pairing of consolidated “Surprise Valley” (“Good-bye it’s time to fly”) and “Porch Song”—“Living the moontime” & “The man in the moon is a musician / That’s the way we pass the lunar day!”
To close out the All-Hollows Eve festivities, WSP finished the 30-minute, quadruple encore by honoring New Orleans jazz legend and JoJo’s musical idol, Professor Longhair. JoJo’s piano led the Panics, returning to the earlier tease, with a jubilant performance of “Red Beans” in its entirety.
For the late-night crowd, George Porter Jr. and JoJo performed an after-party at Tipitinas. For the folks crazy enough to try to work Monday morning, the Sunday scaries hit hard as the countdown begins until their next Panic run.
Up next, Widespread Panic performs November 17th–19th at Chicago Theatre before finishing the year at the fabulous Fox Theatre for four nights of debauchery. Beacon kicks off 2022 with Panic En La Playa immediately thereafter. Safe travels, Goodpeople.
Setlist [via PanicStream]: Widespread Panic | UNO Lakefront Arena | New Orleans, LA | 10/31/21
Set One: Fishwater, Bayou Lena, Space Wrangler, Life On Mars, Holden Oversoul > Jam, Me and the Devil Blues, All Time Low, Pilgrims, Halloween Face, Imitation Leather Shoes
Set Two: Feeling Gravity’s Pull, I’m So Glad, Driving Song > Zigzagging Through Ghostland > Ride Me High > Tie Your Shoes > Saint Ex > Driving Song, Red Hot Mama, End of the Show*, Children of the Grave
Encore: Trashy, Surprise Valley, Porch Song, Red Beans
* w/ JB on mandolin
– ‘Bayou Lena’ LTP 5/02/19 JazzFest (56 shows)
– ‘Life On Mars’ FTP (David Bowie)
– ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ LTP 6/07/19 Brandon, MS (55 shows)
– False start to ‘All Time Low’
– ‘Red Beans’ tease during end of ‘Pilgrims’
– ‘Halloween Face’ FTP (new original)
– ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ FTP (R.E.M.)
– ‘Zigzagging Through Ghostland’ FTP (The Radiators)
– ‘Children of the Grave’ LTP 10/23/16 Milwaukee (149 shows)
– ‘Red Beans’ LTP 1/28/19 Playa (71 shows)