With a stripped down tour schedule, Widespread Panic’s fall tour consisted of a whiskey-bent stay in Nashville before sailing away and nearly capsizing in St. Augustine. Now, Panic has back-to-back weekends in their crosshairs with a beer-guzzling hiatus in the “Brew City” of Milwaukee before doubling down in Las Vegas next weekend for an early Halloween celebration.

After the boys departed from St. Augustine, they took the long way to Milwaukee with Jimmy Herring making an appearance in New York City for the first night of Tedeschi Trucks Band’s six-night run at the Beacon Theater, Schools hit home in California, and the rest of the band disappeared deep into the unknown before resurfacing at the Minhas Craft Brewery a few days before the show. A brewtender who served John Bell stated that the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist and JoJo Hermann barricaded themselves in an undisclosed location and watched re-runs of Happy Days in preparation for this run to put them in the Milwaukee mindset before appearing at several of the home field NLCS baseball games clad in Brewer’s apparel.

The boys returned to the stage last night at the Riverside Theater, which was built in 1928 and has an in-house theatre organ made by Wurlitzer. The band hasn’t played in a month so they looked refreshed and well rested as they opened the night with a heavy “Saint Ex”. The song’s build-up and break down of tempo and intensity was based on the incredible story of a German pilot shooting down his favorite author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry–of The Little Prince notoriety–in World War II. “Saint Ex” hasn’t opened a show since the Ryman Auditorium in 2010. The musicians then drove home a swampy rendition of the Bloodkin’s “Henry Parsons Died” before JoJo lyrically recounted the story of his joining the band with the humorous tale “One Armed Steve.”

The Panics bedazzled in a sweet 18-minute version of “Diner” which the audience responded warmly as soon as the drum line indicated its arrival. Only John Bell could make the feeling of waking up early on a cold bench and stumbling in search of a warm cup of coffee seem so relatable. A bouncing segue revealed another oft-sought after jam with “Little Lily” which preceded the groovy instrumental “Happy.”

After a brief pause, Jimmy Herring and John Bell aced the opening guitar introduction to the first half of “Driving Song” which remained incomplete as they transitioned thematically into a hard-hitting “Shut Up and Drive” with Jimmy Herring and Dave Schools standing out with their incredible white and dark magic, respectively. To complete the lengthy first set, JoJo led the boys through an intoxicating version of “Blackout Blues”.

After setbreak, the band returned to play an electrifying rendition of “Radio Child” before John Bell clearly articulated some saucy mumbo jumbo about Mama’s gumbo in a dirty “Thought Sausage.” Dave Schools played the opening notes to “Red Hot Mama” and the crowd immediately went nuts. Schools remained omnipresent while Herring wove arcane configurations around the bassist’s foundations. John Bell shape-shifted into a Papa Legba-esque figure with all the strut and swagger of a Nawlins street performer. JoJo’s fingers danced nimbly leading into a piano guided tour of J.J. Cale’s “Ride Me High” for a classic combination of “RHM > RMH” with a heavily improvised jam in-between. All in all this “RHM > RMH” combination totaled a thirty-minute shred-fest and to many was the highlight of the night.

Duane Trucks announced the next song to be “Cease Fire” with his abusive beat-down of his drum kit, which followed in the natural Street Dog tradition with “Jamais Vu.” This arrangement allowed John Bell to showcase his ability to switch tones from imploring desperation to uncannily esoteric with the ease of an ordinary man could turn his hat backwards. Returning to finish the second half of “Driving Song”, the band iced the cake with a supplementary jam known as “Breathing Slow.”

Taking the second set to a higher altitude, the boys soared through “Airplane” with the intensity building up until the frantic “Takeoff Jam” left the audience scrambling to pick up the scattered remnants of their skulls with Jimmy Herring and Dave Schools packing gargantuan riffs into a small measures of time. Schools finished the jam with teases to next song, a suave tribute to The Band‘s “Ophelia”, which hints a controversial interracial relationship with a woman of the night. An explosive cover of Jerry Joseph’s reggae toned “Chainsaw City” returned from St. Augustine’s set list to precede an equally passionate “Action Man” (Cheers Curtis!) to conclude the second set.

In honor of Daniel Hutchen’s birthday, Widespread Panic encored with this fellow Georgian and friend of the band’s song of “Quarter Tank of Gasoline” covering Bloodkin for the second time of evening. To finish the first night of devastation, the band played “Imitation Leather Shoes” which featured Dave Schools pulsating bone-crushing bass notes and John Bell getting weird in this musical interpretation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

Widespread Panic will play two more shows at this legendary venue so pick your head off the ground and get ready for more premier musical nastiness with all the grit and soul that has been come to be expected of this tight-knit, world-class band.

Setlist: Widespread Panic | Riverside Theatre | Milwaukee, WI | 10/19/18 

Set 1: Saint Ex, Henry Parsons Died, One Arm Steve, Diner > Little Lilly, Happy, Driving Song > Shut Up and Drive > Blackout Blues (74 mins)

Set 2: Radio Child, Thought Sausage, Red Hot Mama > Ride Me High > Cease Fire > Jamais Vu > Driving Song > Breathing Slow, Airplane > Ophelia, Chainsaw City, Action Man (91 mins)

Encore: Quarter Tank of Gasoline, Imitation Leather Shoes (12 mins)

Notes: [‘Quarter Tank of Gasoline’ LTP 2/05/16 Playa (133 shows) – Today is Danny Hutchens’ birthday]