Widespread Panic, the southern swamp lords of rock and roll returned to the unseasonably cold Louisiana bayou on Halloween for a badass show laden with debuts, bust-outs, multiple guest appearances, gags, skits, and a highly controversial ending. The nefarious pranksters took their All Hallows antics to another level with an Andy Kaufman-inspired theme, going above and beyond the whacky shenanigans that occurred at last year’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In-themed Halloween show in Las Vegas.
When the audience shuffled inside the UNO Lakefront Arena of The University of New Orleans, a taxi-cab cutout stood in front of JoJo Hermann’s space, while Duane Trucks’ drum kit was surrounded by a miniature wrestling ring. Duane, who is a lifelong wrestling fanatic, had the prop wrestling ring complete with ring ropes in a tight square as well as the proclamation “World Intergender Wrestling Championship” printed on a banner facing the audience.
The six-piece band marched on stage sporting Andy Kaufman costumes from different, well-known appearances spanning across a half-decade of television. John Bell depicted Andy Kaufman as seen on David Letterman’s show, resembling a sultan with a gem set in a middle eastern turban. Jimmy Herring, with a Santa Hat and white beard, captured Kaufman’s Carnegie Hall Christmas Spectacular performance. JoJo, with his taxi stand and plastic jumpsuit costume, was Andy Kaufman in his first breakthrough role as Latka Gravas in the popular sitcom, Taxi. Dave Schools, with his food apron stained with mustard and a cafeteria worker’s paper hat on, captured Andy Kaufman as a busboy—his Café Du Monde hat a nod to the Crescent City locale. Sunny Ortiz was Andy Kaufman doing stand-up at The Comedy Store. Duane Trucks, with a shirt that read: “Women’s Wrestling Champion of the World”, was Andy as his notorious “bad-guy wrestler” persona.
To kick off the Halloween festivities, Widespread Panic immediately welcomed longtime friend and local music hero George Porter Jr. to the stage for a double debut of two The Meters songs, “Chicken Strut” and “Hey Pocky Way”. During “Chicken Strut”, George Porter Jr. wielded the bass guitar while Dave Schools ran amok “playing” a rubber chicken. Both contributed vocals for the song. At the end of this guest sit-in, Schools joked his thanks with the sarcastic quip, “George Porter matters.”
Widespread Panic w/ George Porter Jr. – “Chicken Strut” [Pro-Shot, The Meters cover] – 10/31/19
[Video: Widespread Panic]
Widespread Panic w/ George Porter Jr. – “Hey Pocky Way” [The Meters cover] – 10/31/19
[Video: Widespread Panic]
The percussionists followed with another cover, Talking Heads’ “Papa Legba”, paying respect to the voodoo deity before JoJo took the helm for the first original of the night, “One Arm Steve”, off 1999’s Til’ the Medicine Takes. The humorous song retells the story of JoJo getting thrown out of the club before his first gig with Widespread Panic (“One Arm Steve, yeah he threw me out the door / said, ‘Come back sometime when your picture’s on the wall!’”)
Keeping the originals rolling like a locomotive down the tracks, “Love Tractor” riled up the audience as Herring spiraled a conclusive solo, descending until the diesel machine of a jam finally ran out of gas. Sunny’s hand drums broke the silence as the band jumped in to cook up a mean “Hatfield” to make rain for Nawlins. After bawking like a chicken during “Love Tractor”, JB was a veritable soothsayer with a passionate rap about Hatfield’s family, “big, beautiful German peoples”, drinking “cold, cold beers”, and dreaming of “making music in the sky.”
A fiery “All Time Low,” also off the 1999 album, was trailed by a wandering take on the beloved tune, “Pilgrims”, off ‘94’s Everyday. Both songs featured sizzling Herring solos on his new golden axe that shocked and awed that was only exacerbated by a rarely played “Knockin’ Round the Zoo” to close the first set in amazement. Only appearing in setlists approximately a dozen times in the last decade, the James Taylor composition made its rounds “on a Thursday afternoon” for the first time since Jazz Fest in 2017. On the newly resurrected video screen behind the band, visual displays of giraffes, deer, and other zoo animals accompanied JB’s slide guitar and whacky lyrics. The impish Schools chimed in to echo the lyrics and to punctuate JB’s lines with insane laughter and other maniacal noises to further induce madness.
Upon return from setbreak, Widespread returned to open the second frame with the staple Bloodkin cover, “Henry Parson’s Died”. A delicious “Surprise Valley” sandwich soared early in this set to encircle a saucy “Arleen” for nearly a half-hour of inspired group playing. Though “Arleen” was written as a slow reggae ballad by Winston Riley, the Widespread interpretation is one of the nastiest compositions the band performs. Schools dropped bass bombs that both cemented the song’s foundation and featured a tasteful call and response section between the bassist and JB. Bell continued to include chicken noises in the lyrics of songs with not only a whole meter of bawking, but also the notorious line, “Face looks good / But the body not ready!” In the “Surprise Valley” reprise, an unknown patron sat down at a table and seemed to eat and drink onstage, unaffected about the band’s performance, paying homage to Kaufman’s “Eating Ice Cream” sketch.
Widespread Panic – “Arleen” – 10/31/19
[Video: Fred Ramadan]
Keeping it within the realm of their own catalog for a short while longer, Panic bounced through “Old Neighborhood”, which debuted at the same venue back in 2001’s Halloween run. “Holden Oversoul”, off their 1988 debut, Space Wrangler, opened the door for Jimmy Herring to roam free, switching guitars for what seemed like the only time of the night.
Stirring the Halloween potion, Widespread allowed the audience a taste of Charlie Patton’s “Spoonful” for a rare treat. The band hasn’t performed this blues traditional (popularized by legendary bluesman Howlin’ Wolf) since an October show in Montgomery, Alabama over five years ago and 271 shows ago. The jam baton was passed from Jimmy Herring to JoJo and then back to Herring to annihilate this haymaker performance. A grisly and haunting JB infused his vocal inflections throughout the baton’s rotation. For the last song of the night with only the core six members, WSP performed “Tall Boy”. The audience slurped down the fizzy-lifting drink and started to levitate to the ceiling, dancing the whole way.
As the second set wound down, Panic invited the multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills from the fellow Athens-based rock band, R.E.M., as the second guest of the evening in their musical arena. With the help of Mike Mills on keys, the group debuted a heartwarming cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” before Mills switched to guitar to help throw down another debut of David Bowie’s “Starman”.
Widespread Panic w/ Mike Mills – “Starman” [David Bowie cover], “Man on the Moon” [R.E.M. cover] – 10/31/19
[Video: Fred Ramadan]
Mills traded his guitar for a bass in order to debut one last cover, this time from his own band’s catalog with “Man on the Moon” from their 1992 Automatic for the People album. Fitting to the night’s theme, the song pays direct homage to Andy Kaufman’s short but brilliant entertainment career and was featured in the Kaufman biopic of the same name starring Jim Carrey. The lyrics reference Kaufman’s Elvis impersonation and wrestling pranks as the video board displayed Jim Carrey and Kaufman running through his different routines.
To conclude the second set, Widespread Panic performed “Porch Song”, also from their debut album. The song corresponds with the lunar theme with the lyrics, “The man in the moon is a musician / That’s the way we pass the lunar day” as well as a half dozen other references interwoven in the descriptions of waking up on the moon and “livin’ the moontime (time to live it up!)”.
As Panic left for a short break, nobody had any inkling of what lay ahead for an encore—seemingly, not even the band. In show business, the stage has been set and the script has been written and rehearsed, but there’s always a chance for unforeseeable variables. I will give my earnest best to translate last night’s finish into words, though the odds are against me and I beg the reader’s leniency upon judging my efforts.
The first encore tune was a wild ride with Schools manning the microphone, Mike Mills on guitar, Duane Trucks on bass, and Sunny on Duane’s drum kit. Schools was in peak form, showing off his charismatic showmanship as he strode around the stage to the theme of Mighty Mouse in an interpretation of one of Kaufman’s sketches . The song “I Trusted You” featured a skipping beat and diabolical ringleader Dave Schools repeating “I trusted you” in a dramatic voice full of exasperation and shocked disbelief that he would ever trust his fellow comrades with preexisting knowledge of their ne’er-do-well natures.
Dave approached Jimmy Herring stating, “I would like to introduce you to the world’s greatest guitar slinger!” with a casual open arm toward Herring’s direction. Schools pointing his thumb seemed to say, “Check this sh*t out” and proceeded to prompt Herring’s guitar, but Dave interrupted Jimmy as soon as he began cooking his licks with another choral refrain of “I trusted you. I trusted you. (x 5)” as Herring feigned annoyance.
Schools continued his comedic shtick with the one-liner, “F*ckin’ expensive band!” before approaching Mike Mills with the introduction, “It’s a real privilege to have Mr. Mike Mills, the greatest background vocalist in the history of modern rock, to help us out. I’m gonna let him sing a little bit for you. Are you ready?” Schools asked as he reached the microphone to Mills. Right as Mills was opening his mouth to sing, Schools snatched the microphone back and waltzed across the stage once more, declaring “I Trusted You” repeatedly before breaking it down with an “ah, fuck it all!”. The skipping melody returned once more for one last round accompanied by Schools’ unvarying trio of words.
Fabian’s “This Friendly World” debuted to continue the Kaufman theme, who sang the song as a reminder to be humane as well as human. JB and Mike Mills exchanged vocals and harmonized in this plea of brotherhood. After, Steve Lopez came out to request that fans stop smoking—another Kaufman nod—which only garnered skeptical laughter from the audience.
Mike Mills was replaced onstage by perhaps the most abrasive character created by Kaufman, Tony Clifton, and this is where the lines between scripted and unscripted started becoming less and less clear. JoJo, played the part of Clifton, portraying the talentless curmudgeon of a lounge singer resembling a knock-off Dean Martin.
Dean Martin’s “Volare” struggled to take off due to the characteristically nonsensical lyrics, as Tony/JoJo derailed the entire performance early on by insulting the keyboardist JoJo for not knowing the song. However, by this point, with JoJo in Tony Clifton mode, it was Dave’s guitar tech, Paul, wearing JoJo’s costume from earlier in the night who was actually sitting behind the keys. Clifton/JoJo went on, complaining, “I don’t need this… I came from Vegas. I got a show. I don’t need this, but I guess you want Widespread Motherfuckin’ Panic. Well, they got one song that I kind of like” and introduced the extreme rarity “Tacos”, which hasn’t been heard since a show in Oxford, Mississippi in 1995—1,799 shows ago!
Widespread Panic w/ JoJo as Tony Clifton – “Tacos” – 10/31/19
[Video: Josh Daniel]
As Clifton derailed this song as well, audible disdain came from an audience eager to hear some Widespread songs and leave this sketch comedy parody behind. When Tony “JoJo” Clifton expressed once again, “Hey, I don’t need this. I got a show at the Tropicana. It’s a Michael Nichols song. It’s a classic,” one female fan was especially vocal screaming, “Fuck you! We want Widespread!” to which Tony “JoJo” Clifton responded once more by saying, “Yeah? Well, I don’t need this. Well, suck on this now, girl!” and threw a slice of pizza into the audience.
As he turned around smiling, a barrage of water cups came raining down on Tony. The rest of the band exited as the woman climbed on stage and was carried off by two security guards. What seemed to begin as a joke in Panic’s Kaufman-themed parody ended in outrage by one fan in particular. Classic Kaufman.
In the confusion, the show ended without comment, good-bye, or seasonal well-wishes. Widespread Panic tweeted out a response to the confusing conclusion with Dave Schools further commenting via his Instagram platform. In response, PanicStream’s Curtis George appropriately quoted Wikipedia as a header to the setlist: “Andy Kaufman continues to be respected for the variety of his characters, his uniquely counterintuitive approach to comedy, and his willingness to provoke negative and confused reactions from audiences” to help better understand the night’s theme.
We apologize for the unfortunate event that took place at the end of tonight’s show. We will get to the bottom of this for you. Sorry once again to our fans and family. Please enjoy the weekend and see you Friday and Saturday! Happy Halloween. Widespread Panic
— Widespread Panic (@WidespreadPanic) November 1, 2019
Dave Schools added fuel to the confusion fire with an Instagram post of his own.
Whether the female fan wearing a cowgirl hat was in on the act or not remains to be seen, though anyone who’s seen Man on the Moon will recognize the cowgirl-as-crowd-plant trope. Perhaps, the encore surprised the audience so much that some attendees were completely unnerved by the audacity and unexpected nature of the seemingly talentless charades of Tony Clifton. Kaufman would have been pleased if that were the case, as he showcased many of his characters’ talents only after deceiving the audience with them. Then again, he was also big on planting actors in the crowd to help sell his “happenings,” so the whole altercation and the band’s stick-to-your-guns dedication to the bit, even after the fact, could easily have been just another layer to the ruse. The confusion you’re feeling right now, after all, was always Kaufman’s calling card.
The Widespread Panic run continues tonight for the second of three performances at the Uno Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, Louisiana, and something tells me that there are more surprise antics and strange mysteries are still yet to come.
As always, you can stream full audio of the show via PanicStream.
Setlist: Widespread Panic | UNO Lakefront Arena | New Orleans, LA | 10/31/19
Set One: Intro 1, Chicken Strut*, Hey Pocky Way**, Papa Legba, One Arm Steve, Love Tractor, Hatfield, All Time Low, Pilgrims, Knocking ‘Round The Zoo
Set Two: Intro Mighty Mouse, Henry Parsons Died, Surprise Valley > Arleen > Surprise Valley, Old Neighborhood, Holden Oversoul, Spoonful, Tall Boy, Perfect Day***, Starman****, Man On The Moon*****, Porch Song
Encore: Trusted You******, This Friendly World****, Volare*******, Tacos******* /
* w/ George Porter Jr. on bass & vocals; Dave on rubber chicken & vocals
** w/ George Porter Jr on bass & vocals
*** w/ Mike Mills on keys
**** w/ Mike Mills on guitar & vocals
***** w/ Mike Mills on bass & vocals
****** w/ Dave on vocals only; Mike Mills on guitar; Duane on bass; Sunny on drum kit
******* w/ JoJo as Tony Clifton on vocals
– First Time Plays: ‘Chicken Strut’ (The Meters), ‘Hey Pocky Way’ (The Meters), ‘Perfect Day’ (Lou Reed), ‘Starman’ (David Bowie), ‘Man On The Moon’ (R.E.M.), ‘I Trusted You’ (Andy Kaufman), ‘This Friendly World’ (Fabian), ‘Volare’ (Dean Martin)
– Last Time Plays: ‘Knocking ‘Round The Zoo’ 5/04/17 Jazz Fest (94 shows), ‘Spoonful’ 10/08/14 Montgomery (271 shows), ‘Tacos’ 9/25/95 Oxford (1,799 shows)
– Paul (Dave’s tech) in JoJo’s costume and on keys entire encore
– Steve Lopez interrupted show before encore to ask fans to stop smoking
– Show ended with fan altercation on stage during ‘Tacos’
Andy Kaufman Theme
JB: Andy as Elvis on Tonight Show/Letterman
Dave: Andy as bus boy at Cafe du Monde
Jimmy: Andy at Carnegie hall for Christmas Spectacular
Sunny: Andy doing stand-up at Comedy Store
JoJo: Andy as Latka Gravas on Taxi
Duane: Andy as lady wrestler in ring
Unknown: Andy sidestage eating dinner at Improv