The overlords of rock and roll known as Widespread Panic crawled out of their swampy Georgian dens to assume their rightful position at the vanguard of the jam scene by kicking off a five-night residency at New York’s illustrious Beacon Theatre on Thursday night.
The historic Upper West Side can only seat just under 3,000 people, but when a limited Chuck Sperry poster was released on Thursday, hungry fans dropped their slices of pizza and sprinted toward the venue doors three hours before showtime. With only 500 printed for sale, hundreds braved the cold, blistering wind for a chance to get their eager hands on Sperry’s new gal.
By the time the advertised showtime rolled around, most of the audience was ready and seated with libations flowing steadily. The road-hardened veterans returned to the stage, flanked by twin thirty-foot gilded statues underneath a proscenium archway, and picked up right where they left off in Mexico with “Porch Song”. This beloved classic closed out the final night of Panic en la Playa last month and was resurrected for another perfectly executed rendition. Paul Hoffman’s new light rig was on full display, expertly blending light and shadows in a flowing mélange of kaleidoscopic colors.
Staying within the band’s extensive catalog throughout the first set, Widespread coupled a “Rebirtha” with a sizzling “Greta” before a meandering jam bled into Dave Schools‘ bass-heavy bombardment of “Stop Go”. True to his nature, Jimmy Herring blew the doors off the theater with his high-voltage guitar playing and lightning-fast licks as his bandmates stepped back to watch the wizard shred. John Bell slipped a sweet, Leonard Cohen-inspired “That Don’t Make It Junk” rap into the bleeding heart of “Stop Go” after Schools and JoJo Hermann took turns strutting their respective stuff.
Schools remained sturdy at the helm, easing the melody into a beauteous “Little Lilly” which featured a captivating JB. Schools grounded the jam and lassoed the many audience members that phased out of the cosmic plane during Jimmy Herring’s last trip into overdrive. The wonderous tune ended with a twinkling melodic residue and the trio of vocalists reminding those in attendance that “It’s only real if you believe.”
Continuing the first set of originals, Panic built a sprawling, 20-minute sandwich by dividing a jarring and hard-hitting “Proving Ground” around a triumphant “Bust It Big”. JoJo not only shouted the lyrics “Beware of the man / who builds monuments to himself” in the shadow of the Trump Tower, but also gave lyrical nods to la Playa as well as to their stay in the de facto capital of the world, New York City. (“Pour my shots and ride my liquor down / TO MEXICO!” & “Rosemary’s baby is a New York City KID!”) JoJo sang the tribute to New York City with a grit and pizzazz fitting of somebody born on Mulberry Street in downtown Manhattan.
Panic wound back into “Proving Ground” before closing out the first set of originals with a blazing “Action Man”, galloping down the home stretch of the frame. The tune was inspired by the story of the legendary racehorse Man-O’-War’s only defeat in Saratoga Racetrack to the longshot named Upset.
Returning from the shadows of the curtain-less side stage, Widespread picked up their instruments to open the second set with “Steven’s Cat” from their most recent album, Street Dogs. Released in 2015, this collaboratively written tune was penned spontaneously in the studio in tribute to the band’s shared musical idol, Cat Stevens.
A saucy transitional jam paved the way for the first cover of the night, Neil Young’s “Walk On”. Ol’ Neil’s another of the band’s idols, so Panic aced their tribute to him accordingly. Schools anchored the melody into an inverted “Blight” with an added quip of “We’re really just flying through the universe, so don’t worry about it. It’s all cool” in his customary improvisation section. The tune was birthed by a collaborative side project, brute., which consisted of Dave Schools, late founding Panic lead guitarist Michael Houser, JoJo, former drummer Todd Nance, and lyrical prowess and creativity of Vic Chesnutt. The extended take on Thursday night was more than twice the length of the cut released on brute.’s debut album, Nine High a Pallet, from the autumnal days of 1995.
JoJo’s flourishing fingers dazzled across his piano next for a swinging, up-tempo take on NRBQ’s “Help Me Somebody”. The song’s structure and momentum culminated in one last explosion before breaking down into a vibrant improvised section that eventually emerged into a tasty “Fishwater”. Dave Schools dug deep into the muck to flood the concert hall with a tidal wave of briny Mississippi River water from the New Orleans’ delta.
A percussive breakdown led into a duel between drummers Duane Trucks and Sunny Ortiz before remerging from the fish stew to demand “Mo! Mo! Mo” in unison like devout monks chanting a holy mantra. The diabolical Schools added his spicy dashes to the concoction with relentless barrages from the entrenched warrior’s corner.
A wandering “Pilgrims” allowed Jimmy Herring to once more soar into interstellar overdrive as the audience held onto their faces. JB connected with the ghosts of ghettos past for a haunting performance Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman”, a certain highlight of the night. To close the second set, Widespread drank from their own well once more with an evolutionary “Conrad”.
Before diving into the first night’s encore, Dave Schools thanked the crowd with a grateful acknowledgment: “Well, you’ve been an excellent first pancake. Four more pancakes to go.” Schools may have been perpetuating New York City food theme akin to Phish’s 13-night “Baker’s Dozen” run in 2017, or perhaps he was referencing the customary number of flapjacks in a “stack” (five). Or maybe, he was merely foreshadowing a late-night diner after the show.
Whatever the case, Widespread paid homage to Tom Petty with an encore-opening “You Wreck Me”, just the tenth-ever Panic rendition. To close out the night, Panic played the classic original “Tall Boy” off 1996’s Bombs & Butterflies.
Below, check out a gallery of photos from the show below courtesy of photographer Chris Capaci as well as a selection of fan-shot videos. As always, you can stream a full audio recording of the show via PanicStream.
Widespread Panic – “Proving Ground” > “Bust It Big” > “Proving Ground” – 2/27/20
[Video: Fred Ramadan]
Widespread Panic – “Fishwater” – 2/27/20
[Video: Fred Ramadan]
Widespread Panic – “Pusherman” [Curtis Mayfield cover] – 2/27/20
[Video: Fred Ramadan]
Widespread Panic – “Help Me Somebody” [NRBQ cover] – 2/27/20
Widespread Panic returns to the Beacon for their second of five shows tonight, Friday, 2/28. In the wise words of Dave Schools, “Four more pancakes to go” in this legendary “stack” of Widespread’s unique style of blues-infused rock and roll. For ticketing information, head here.
Setlist: Widespread Panic | Beacon Theatre | New York, NY | 2/27/20
Set One: Porch Song, Rebirtha > Greta > Jam > Stop Go > Little Lilly, Provin’ Ground > Big Bust > Provin’ Ground > Action Man
Set Two: Steven’s Cat > Steven’s Cat Jam > Walk On (Neil Young cover) > Blight > Help Me Somebody (NRBQ Cover) > Jam > Fishwater > Drum Solo > Fishwater > Pilgrims, Pusherman (Curtis Mayfield cover) > Conrad
Encore: You Wreck Me (Tom Petty cover) > Tall Boy