Widespread Panic returned from a month-long hiatus to resume their musical conquest in Brandon, Mississippi on Friday. Picking up right where they left off from their performance at New Orleans Jazz Fest last month, Widespread set up the first show as part of a two–night run at the spacious Brandon Amphitheater.
The outdoor venue, which holds about 8,000 fans, is located a mere two hours’ drive from the Dockery Plantation and the infamous crossroads of Highways 61 & 49 in Clarksdale (more on the Clarksdale crossroads later). At the Dockery Plantation, the slaves plucked guitars and made music and arguably created the earliest derivative of the blues genre. Charley Patton, Henry Sloan, and “Son” House became the influential teachers to a second generation that consisted of notorious bluesmen Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Pops Staples.
With the weather ominously threatening from a distance, the musical six-piece machine opened the show Friday with the scorchin’ original “Little Kin”–the opening track off their Ain’t Life Grand album. The band hit the ground running with a tumultuous introduction and the audience reveled in the unrivaled energy being emitted from the stage. Dave Schools provided assistance on vocals grounding the jam until Jimmy Herring took his first flight into overdrive.
Schools kept his bass foundations strong as he introduced infamous bluesman Willie Dixon’s “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind”. Dixon was born an hour away from Brandon Amphitheater in Vicksburg, MI, and John Bell effortlessly channeled his localized spirit and grit. As Dixon’s notes faded out, Sonny Ortiz and JoJo Hermann dueled until Herring revealed “Pleas”, which both warmed the audiences’ hearts and warded off the looming clouds with JB’s desperation “Don’t let it get too dark!” Jimmy Herring took a quantum leap through the universe with a sizzling guitar solo as Duane Trucks kept up the percussive rhythms masterfully.
A short but sweet tribute to Dr. John emerged in the form of a transitional jam with JoJo Hermann teasing the well-known melody of “Such a Night” before delving into a swarming “Greta”. In the immediate aftermath of the legendary voodoo musician’s death passing earlier this week, it was only a matter of time before their tribute was felt and heard.
“Greta” wasn’t “no flowerchild” as JoJo took lead vocals with JB and Schools on supporting vocals. As is tradition, Schools–along with the show’s raucous audience–provided the animal sounds, including dog howls, buzzing bees, and otherworldly manifestations. Herring was “in a fighting mood” as he carved ancient hieroglyphics into the heavy stone tablets provided by Schools.
Schools kept his diabolical plot at work beginning with a sweet improvised jam with JoJo that evolved into a “Stop-Go” tease with the whole band getting down. Following the jam, Bell painted a vivid picture of the Antebellum South with the piano-laden original tune, “Cotton was King”.
The piano licks continued, introducing the lyrical tongue-twister “Time Zones”, co-written by Jerry Joseph. Returning to the roots of the blues, JB crushed a nasty performance of Pops Staples’ “Hope in a Hopeless World” with each member of the band stepping up to bring new meaning to an old tune.
The dirty Mississippi blues kept rolling with a finger-licking good cover of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues”, which to many in attendance was the highlight of the entire evening. Johnson’s song was written about his personal experience after leaving Dockery Plantation and meeting the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, where, as legend has it, he sold his soul in exchange for virtuoso guitar–playing abilities. JoJo destroyed this song with his whirlwind fingers weaving an unholy cloth from his piano loom. John Bell was perfectly creepy with the haunted vocals of a soulless man being dogged around by the devil. The poster for the evening captured the legendary moment of Robert Johnson as the band annihilated its own artful interpretation.
To conclude the first set, Widespread Panic covered their Georgian brethren’s “Makes Sense to Me”, written by Daniel Hutchens of Bloodkin. JB took some creative liberty in the changing the lyrics “The way I feel these days / I’d rather have a gun than a crutch” to “I’d rather have some love than a crutch.” As another nod to their surroundings, JB also changed the lyrics “I was talking to a black man from Mississippi.”
Returning from set break, Panic kept the pedal to the floor with a bass-heavy rendition of The Meters’ “Ain’t No Use”. It’s well-known that Schools credits George Porter Jr. as one of his biggest musical influences, and his bass-playing does justice to his mentor’s song. JB traded his funky swagger for a feeling of homesickness as he described a father racing home to see his family on the holidays with a crushing “Papa’s Home”. The tune juxtaposes a slow pace and heart-wrenchingly desperate tone with a saucy, fast-paced section of frenzied determination. Papa came home–and after a lengthy transition–ended up in the bouncing rhythms of “Old Neighborhood” before JoJo brought yet another tale to life from Mississippi’s murky historical depths with “1×1”. JoJo’s lyrics described the 1939 collapse of a section of I-80 over Clear Creek and subsequent rescue attempts by the mythical “Sugarman”.
Keeping up with the theme of “grabbing each other’s collar & rising out of the water,” JoJo’s organ blazed the way into the second Jerry Joseph song, “Climb to Safety”. As if the night couldn’t get any better, the rolling drums of “Diner” gave the audience vittles and nourishment for their souls with an extra serving of JB’s quick-witted raps. The band transitioned into the instrumental “Party at your Mama’s House” with a “Do What You Like” jam interwoven inside. Returning to the ancient lineage of Mississippi blues, JB electrified throughout the second Robert Johnson cover of the night with a cascading “Stop Breaking Down” before rounding out the set with a glorious “Holden Oversoul”.
After a short break, Widespread Panic returned to the stage to perform the third Jerry Joseph tune of the night, another lyrically intricate masterpiece in “Chainsaw City”. This “Chainsaw City” was drawn out and built patiently in its customary reggae style. The tune even featured an on-stage appearance from Steve Lopez, the band’s tour manager on percussion, and was featured as a solo encore for the first time since the summer tour of 2015 in Lewiston, NY (6/16/2015).
Jimmy Herring remained in peak form throughout the end of the second set with him and JoJo in competing for M.V.P. of the evening. It was a homecoming of sorts for JoJo, who moved to Oxford, MS and lived thereabouts for several years before meeting his bandmates in Georgia. Though it is hard to choose one stand-out band member as each individual contributes whole-heartedly to the amalgamation of sound with each playing their own unique role in the build-ups, breakdowns, and sudden changes of pace and momentum.
All in all, when Widespread Panic returns to the South–especially the deep south–they always play a show that is true to their roots and overwhelming with intensity and focus. The band will finish off their two-night stay in Brandon, MS on Saturday, and you can bet your last dollar that it won’t be one to miss.
For a full list of the band’s upcoming tour dates and ticketing information, head to Widespread Panic’s website.
Setlist: Widespread Panic | Brandon Amphitheater | Brandon, MS | 6/7/2019
Set One: Little Kin, Weak Brain Narrow Mind (Willie Dixon cover), Pleas > Greta^ > Cotton Was King#, Time Zones, Hope In A Hopeless World (Pops Staples cover), Me and the Devil Blues (Robert Johnson cover), Makes Sense To Me (Daniel Hutchens cover)
Set Two: It Ain’t No Use (The Meters cover), Papa’s Home > Old Neighborhood > 1 x 1 > Climb To Safety (Jerry Joseph cover), Diner$ > Party At Your Mama’s House > Stop Breakin’ Down Blues (Robert Johnson cover), Holden Oversoul
Encore: Chainsaw City* (Jerry Joseph cover)
* w/ Steve Lopez on percussion
^ “Such a Night” tease by JoJo into “Greta”
# “Stop-Go” tease into “Cotton Was King”
$ “Do What You Like” tease out of “Diner”