On Thursday night, Widespread Panic took the stage to commence the first of three nights at The Theater at the MGM National Harbor Hotel and Casino, which opened in the nation’s capital in 2016. The band took complete advantage of the state-of-the-art venue’s visual and audio capabilities in an intimate space with a capacity of only 3,000 people. After the political message branded into the setlists of Birmingham, Widespread Panic was poised to inject a call for unity directly into the heart of America.
To kick off the night, the band opened with an appetizing “Wondering” before segueing into “Hope in a Hopeless World” which Everyday Companion accredits to Pops Staples and first appears on Panic’s Bombs & Butterflies (1997). The moral undertones of the lyrics reminded the attentive listeners to remain steadfast while “trying to find love in these hateful times. Try to stay strong but my mind is weak, looking for hope in a hopeless world.” John Bell continued his vocal domination as the band delved into a supernatural version of “Steven’s Cat” from their most recent album, Street Dogs for Breakfast (2015).
However, the fire began to erupt when the boys delved into the crowd favorite “Rebirtha”, which the entire band musically annihilated and the audience responded to accordingly. A heavy jam segued into an outstanding version of “You Should Be Glad” from the album appropriately titled Earth to America (2006). Dave Schools thumped away on his bass while his hair billowed behind him, having found some sort of draft in the indoor venue. Jimmy Herring, who was especially on point all night, shredded the unholy hell out of this song, making its culminating jam one of the many highlights of the night.
A rare bust-out emerged in the form of “Travelin’ Man”, the lone Michael Houser-penned song on Ball (2003), the band’s first LP with former guitarist George McConnell. The song had not been played since 2014, and this marked the first rendition with Duane Trucks on the drums. Jimmy Herring kicked off the next song with an early lightning storm solo before settling into the melodic grooves of “The Take Out”, an instrumental jam from the band’s 1988 debut album, Space Wrangler.
Widespread Panic continued to add fuel to the musical fire with back-to-back covers of The Band. First, Panic played “The Shape I’m In”, once again touching upon themes of rising up over the dog-eat-dog mentality that remains omnipresent these days: “Save your neck or save your brother, it looks like it’s one or the other, Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in..” The boys followed with a raucous version of “Ophelia” to which the crowd responded enthusiastically, stomping 6,000 feet to test the structural integrity of the venue’s foundations. To conclude an epic first set, Panic delivered a pristine version of “Porch Song” complete with an unselfish movement of solos and JB nailing the spaced-out lunar lyrics.
After set break, the band returned to the stage to rip through a bass-heavy “Old Neighborhood”, a song which seems to have an affinity for D.C. Next, JoJo Hermann took lead vocals for a cutting rendition of “Visiting Day”, which posits the question, “Why can’t we just take a look around us and only see the things that make you smile?”
A cover of Bloodkin’s “Can’t Get High” followed, accurately describing the feelings of heartbreak and lost love with all the Jimmy Herring guitar shreds in between. John Bell hoisted himself on a metaphysical petard to capture the emotionally distraught tone that completes this song. A mellow version of “Airplane” came next, featuring an electrically charged guitar solo by Jimmy Herring. As per usual, this song gave the band wings to fly to a higher plateau as they continued to add to the scorching conflagration on stage.
The musicians teased a hint of “Pusherman”, reminiscent of their shows in Mexico, before demolishing a “Jaded Tourist” led by Hermann on vocals. Widespread Panic had not played this song since 2011 aside from 3 performances in 2017, and has only played it 27 times total–they don’t perform this song often, but when they do, they always bring the heat.
Jerry Joseph’s cover “North” provided Widespread Panic an opportunity to showcase their unparalleled musicianship as well as gave directional perspective of the band’s Georgian grassroots. “North” brought the stompin’ intensity that is characteristic of a Widespread Panic show, and also provided more Playa nostalgia with lyrics “Haul you back to Mexico! Send me back to School[s]”.
The entire band (except for Duane Trucks) then left the stage and gave the drummer ample “alone time” to beat the shit out of his drum kit. After nearly ten minutes of unaccompanied drumming, Schools returned to his position, followed by Sunny, then JoJo and, finally, Jimmy and JB. The boys returned to their theme of unity with a cover of the classic Beatles’ song “Come Together”. Like true professionals, Panic imbued the classic with their own rock and roll flavor, making it their own. They hadn’t played this cover in 819 shows–since 2005–and the crowd went bonkers. JB aced the vocals and Jimmy Herring introduced the Beatles to light speed.
To finish the second set, Widespread Panic segued into a wholesome rendition of “Surprise Valley”. The incredible visual display depicted a soaring bald eagle in the background added credence to the underlying theme of unity. With this song used in so many crazy combinations, it was a pleasant change of pace to hear it played straight through, no sammies.
The band returned to encore the original “Radio Child” from Bombs & Butterflies. The White Wizard “turned the dial, and electrified” while JoJo’s flurry of fingers matched his hasty tempo. The “Radio Child” jam was undoubtedly electrical, but the boys nearly burned the brand-new casino down when they played the opening licks to “For What It’s Worth.” This song, written by Stephen Stills and performed by Buffalo Springfield, was the very first tune Widespread Panic ever played together and is the quintessential evidence to the show’s underlying messages of abolishing paranoia, fear, and hateful tactics to unite as brothers and sisters. Even though the song was written in the 1960’s, there are several blaring comparisons between our modern age and the civil rights era. Our great country is in political turmoil, and the need to unify under a common cause is more important than ever. Under the banner of Widespread Panic, the good people prevailed and eagerly await night two.
Setlist: Widespread Panic | The Theater At MGM National Harbor | Washington, D.C. | 3/15/18
Set 1: Wondering, Hope In A Hopeless World, Steven’s Cat, Rebirtha > Jam, You Should Be Glad, Travelin’ Man^, The Take Out, The Shape I’m In^^, Ophelia, Porch Song (67 mins)
Set 2: Old Neighborhood, Visiting Day, Can’t Get High, Airplane > Jaded Tourist, North > Drums > Come Together^^^ > Surprise Valley (78 mins)
Encore: Radio Child, For What It’s Worth (14 mins)
Notes: ^ Last time played 6/25/14 Kansas City (221 shows); FTP for Duane
^^ Last time played 10/22/16 Milwaukee (47 shows)
^^^ Last time played 11/04/05 Denver (819 shows!)