Widespread Panic took the stage at Radians Amphitheater at Memphis Botanic Garden in Memphis, TN for the band’s first of two nights headlining at Mempho Festival. After a day of performances by Southern Avenue, Billy Strings, Lucinda Williams, and more, the kings of swamp rock, retook the stage for the first time since their three-run in Asheville, North Carolina.

The unstoppable locomotive was temporarily derailed when lead singer John Bell tested positive for COVID-19 the morning of Austin’s first scheduled show [Note: JB recently caught up with Live For Live Music to discuss getting COVID-19 and getting back on the road for 12 shows in October. Read the interview here].

The Panics proceeded to do what they do on the Mempho stage. After opening with a ferocious “Tall Boy”, JB had the audience foaming at the mouth. Two consecutive segues dropped the melody into the instrumental “Disco” before ending up in Bloodkin’s funereal “Henry Parsons Died”

“Junior”, the blues-infused tribute to Junior Kimbrough, followed with dirty Mississippi water running down JB’s grizzled muzzle. Vic Chesnutt’s “Aunt Avis” blazed the way into a bombastic rendition of “Rebirtha”.

From there, fans were treated to the sit-in that’s been buzzed about since the festival’s daily lineups were announced as Billy Strings, the Grammy-winning young picker who had just a day prior been named “Entertainer of the Year” at the IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards, strolled onstage.

The respect between Panic and young Billy runs deep. In addition to regularly covering Widespread Panic songs during his live shows, Billy Strings sat in with the band during an acoustic performance at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 2019.

As Widespread Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring told Live For Live Music about the Billy Strings acoustic sit-in during a late-2019 interview, “Billy is a wonderful kid. He is brilliant, he’s got great musical sensibilities. And, of course, he has technique for days. He can pretty much clobber anybody; he’s got flatpicking chops galore and he’s a true acoustic man. To me, acoustic is like a different world. I’m out of my wheelhouse a bit but I really love it because it’s a learning experience.”

When Billy joined Jimmy on dual-lead guitar at Mempho, however, he did so not with his typical acoustic but with an electric axe, ready to go toe-to-toe with Herring in the elder guitar wizard’s wheelhouse.

First, the rare “Dirty Business” made its triumphant return, followed by a segue jam that paired scintillating licks from Jimmy and Billy to hair-raising effect en route to a seething “All Time Low”, a soaring “Airplane”, and a scorching cover of Funkadelic‘s “Red Hot Mama”. For each of the four songs played—and their ensuing transitional jams—Billy Strings and Jimmy Herring put on an electric guitar clinic, playing off each other as only two masters can.

Widespread Panic w/ Billy Strings – “Dirty Business” – 10/1/21

Widespread Panic w/ Billy Strings – “All Time Low” – 10/1/21

[Video: Music City Maven]

Widespread Panic w/ Billy Strings – “Airplane” – 10/1/21

[Video: Music City Maven]

As Billy left the stage, Panic began constructing a hard-hitting sandwich with the first half of “Driving Song” bleeding into the beginning of “Surprise Valley”. Duane Trucks and “Sunny” Ortiz broke the music down until nothing was left but rhythms. Dave Schools dug his heels into the end of “Drums” and helped redirect the thundering segment into Calvin Carter and Bobby Rush’s “Bowlegged Woman” before finishing the second halfs of “Surprise Valley” and “Driving Song”, respectively.

To wind down the first night of madness, Widespread Panic demolished a take on “You Got Yours” before ending the extended festival set with a psychedelic flight into the sunset on “Pigeons”.

Widespread Panic returns to the stage tonight for the second headlining set. Moon Taxi, Andy Frasco & the U.N., and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats maintain the excitement before WSP commandeers the astute audience’s attention. Stay safe, y’all, but give ‘em hell.

Setlist: Widespread Panic | Mempho Music Festival | Memphis, TN | 10/1/21

Tall Boy > Disco > Henry Parsons Died, Junior, Aunt Avis, Rebirtha, Dirty Business* > Jam* > All Time Low*, Airplane* > Red Hot Mama*, Driving Song > Surprise Valley > Drums > Bowlegged Woman > Surprise Valley > Driving Song, You Got Yours, Pigeons (146 mins)

Notes * w/ Billy Strings on electric guitar

– ‘Cars’ tease during ‘You Got Yours’