This past Saturday, Widespread Panic played their 68th show at the infamous Red Rocks Amphitheatre as the middle night of their annual multi-event run. Making the magic happen as a headliner at this mecca for music since 1996 and selling out the venue once again, the southern collective brought their heat under mild temperatures and clear skies, dolling out two well-executed sets full of the old-school charm and a couple of rarities, leaving all those lucky enough to get in with another one for the record books.
Strolling out right before 7:30 pm, the six smooth gentlemen were welcomed with the expected mighty roar of a very filled house, bodies occupying every seat and spilling over into the cedar-lined walkways and any nook that would have them. Looks of joy could be seen in all directions and under such an overt invitation, the band took a moment to take it all in once again.
As John Bell and Jimmy Herring hit a couple of notes to make sure everything was plugged in and running, Jo Jo Hermann got things going solo style, tickling everyone’s earbone with some ragtime builds, eventually shifting into the opening of “Greta”. With a voice 10,000 strong, the audience called out in recognition and the sunlit set was underway, bobbing, dancing, and smiling from the inside out. Herring dove head-first into his position and it was clear from his initial solo, he was packing electricity. By the time everyone got into the jam, it was evident that the group was moving on all cylinders and feeling good. Stretching the opener past the eight-minute mark, everyone pivoted from the high point with perfect time into Neil Yong’s “Walk On”, the crowd cheering and egging the band on, especially when Bell belted out the line I remember the good old days, Stayed up all night gettin' crazed. Five minutes in, the tempo shifted and the whole place lit up with the usual jam on Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight”, Herring taking center stage with nothing short of incendiary mastery of the lead. With a return to the Neil Young cover, the concoction finally closed out at eight minutes and although not a bust out, hitting this relative rarity early on, it was clear that the evening was getting started with something special.
Without a breath or a true wind down, the strings and keys paused as Duane Trucks and Sunny Ortiz kept pushing the rhythm for a couple of measures into track three, “Wondering”. Hermann’s organ melody interspersed among piano sounds filled the space nicely and Dave Schools’ playing meshed comfortably into the upper registry, keeping this one light and positive. Following suit, Bloodkin’s cover of “Can’t Get High” moved the spirit onward and upward, Bell delivering the heartfelt lyrics to the eager audience singing along.
Dripping with gritty funk and a dark edge, “Thought Sausage” changed the vibe entirely and showed the rougher side of the band, a dynamic that many in the fanbase love to no end. Schools’ driving bass lines shook the walls and quaked the grounds, Herring melting it all down, so much that Schools’ equipment couldn’t take it, leaving the rest of the band to carry out the ending without him. With the final note of the piece, Schools addressed the crowd with a short PSA, “Sorry I went away for a second, but now I’m back. Don’t be too reliant on technology folks!”
With a grin and a giggle, the bassman got back to business, laying out the intro line of “Machine”. Keeping with the flavor of the preceding dish, this punchy selection wavers between wide time signatures and rapid-fire rhythms, each hit with precision from the band as a cohesive whole. Moving into the usual pairing of “Barstools and Dreamers”, this counterpart was anything but typical and came in at thirteen minutes, the total for the married pieces, seventeen minutes overall. Starting with a slinky strut down the runway, taking its time and under the hypnotic direction of Bell’s slide and a supportive groove from Hermann’s Rhodes effect, Bell got going, handling the mountain of lyrics. Wriggling and writhing, the crowd shook it all down and breathed in the open space of the midsection. Herring got first take and channeling the IT, elevated the crowd to dizzying heights. Act two got the treatment from some back and forth between Bell and Hermann, Schools’ funky rhythm intertwined with the timekeepers keeping the foundation intact. Returning for the final stanza, Bell took liberty with the standard lyrics, adding flavor and scat, a sign signifying to many that he was having as much of a ball as the village out in front of him was.
The bright and lilting “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” brought everyone into comfort and following the sparse lyrical content, Hermann showed everyone what he’s made of. Soothing and smoothing and eventually climbing to the top, Jo Jo got several minutes of the showcase. Hitting his apex, he broke from piano sound to organ surround as Herring took over, the bearded magician casting his spell wide and far.
To close out the set, the ominous bassline of “Imitation Leather Shoes” put the gnarl back to the brow, and under the vocal direction of Bell with his disturbing inflection to the unsettling words, the dysfunctional connection was complete. Bristled and unruly, this one met the expectation of its slot, sending the audience into the set break excited and calling out for more.
Set two opened with “Pigeons” and was revved up from the start. Following the lyrics, when the tune widened, Schools took center stage, pumping out the melody, hitting the high notes as well as some great improv, Hermann giving it his all on the piano. Changing shape again at about seven minutes in, the band shifted the theme, Hermann leaning deep into effect and plotting out a funky route that the rest of the men followed gladly, adding combustible materials to the already blazing inferno of ‘Oh My!’ goodness. The final two minutes were a downshift and were rhythm filled by Trucks and Ortiz, while the rest settled back and Bell repeatedly resounded Wake up, wake up, remember how to fly? against a backdrop of tattered tonal textures.
**LISTEN TO THE FULL SHOW HERE -- THANK YOU, Z-MAN (and all tapers)**
Not played since the band’s Mexico run in January and played only six times ever since 2021, Leon Russell’s “Stranger In A Strange Land” was met with excited fanfare, with many audience members jumping up and down and informing those around them what was going down. Well played and the lyrics hit in total by Bell, it’s rare moments like these in setlists that keep any music lover coming back to the wellspring to drink deep. But wait, there’s more. Towards the tail end of the tune, the tempo shifted and the band slipped into Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. Like Mexico and the preceding handful of times that “Stranger In A Strange Land” has been played, the Russell / Dylan pairing has always been the end result. Bell continued manning the vocals, but was much less complete in this lyrical reading, and who can blame him for detouring from the seemingly endless lines captured by Dylan’s pen. Nonetheless, this tune with its mountain of lyrics was well received, and again, anyone catching these shooting stars was happy to be living their best life at the moment. Finally coming to a rousing bluesy big band finish, the group moved right back into the final act of “Stranger In A Strange Land” without missing a beat. Although Bell took more liberties with the final stanzas, the band was on such a tear, it didn’t matter. Amidst the apex and more of Bell’s enthusiastic scatting driving the frenzy further, the frontman did manage to get out the important lines from the final stanzas: Lay back, relax / Get back on the human track / Recognize the bells of truth / When you hear them ring / Let the children sing, let the children sing, making for a great finish.
After a short pause to reel in the wave of energy from an appreciative audience, the band kept the segues coming with the usual pairing of “Good People > Dark Bar”. The first part of “Good People” checked all the boxes with its great boogie groove and a good reading by Bell. Downshifting into “Dark Bar”, Hermann hit all the words, and moving into the channel, the structure ebbed and flowed, oscillating between space, delicate and light, to punctuated, heavy and deliberate. Picking up steam once again, the return to “Good People” had Schools playing in and around the theme, Herring blasting off on his assortment of pedals, and Ortiz lapping them both with the astonishing speed at the close.
“Tackle Box Hero” is one of the newest arrangements to the Widespread Panic canon and made its fourth appearance on Saturday night since its debut in Mexico in January. Sung by Hermann, this one definitely has that Widespread flavor, both in musicality and script. Bell and Schools’ harmonies also sounded well polished and the execution was tight, making it seem more elder than new kid. The last two minutes got some great interplay and exploratory dynamics that made many wish it had gone longer. As the end disintegrated, “Bear’s Gone Fishin’” picked the energy back up and kept the dance party going. With Bell’s rhythm and Hermann’s organ playing laid over the steadfast technical dynamic of Trucks, this one just chugs along a space train bound to everywhere without expectation. Stepping off into uncharted territory, Herring and Bell passed the ball back and forth, Schools stepping in to carry the gap. The final minutes calmed and breathed before the rest of the band dropped out to give everyone some Sonny time before both timekeepers moved the evening into “Surprise Valley”.
With its nature-inspired imagery, this one has Colorado written all over it and was welcomed audibly. Putting in his best effort to melt faces, Herring did his job to the Nth degree. With swirling cymbals and some sweet slide the ‘Valley’ opened up into “Blue Indian”. Of note, this one showed how versatile Bell’s singing can be, swinging the pendulum from sweet and fragile to a gut-wrenching growl. Herring’s slide here echoed with a haunting phrase and Hermann’s organ warmed the crowd.
Everyone hanging on the final notes as the wind carried them off, Schools started up a rollicking bassline adorned in echo effect and everyone else on stage was quick to jump in. What ensued was a seven-minute jam that had Red Rocks shakin’, people listening, and many losing control. “Drums” followed the jam-turned-space oddity and certainly did not disappoint either. At twelve-plus minutes of percussive power, Trucks and Ortiz employed every tool in their bag and kept the flavor unique and creative.
Under a final snare snap and conga rip, the rest of the band joined the rhythmists and pulled from Neil Young’s songbook once again, hitting up “Mr. Soul” to make an appearance. Hermann’s mid-song piano solo was energetic, Herring’s closing run was frenetic, and the whole damn thing overall was just kinetic.
With a seemingly endless supply of the good stuff, the sextet, without pause or fizzle, went from the Young cover back into “Surprise Valley” to finish the final stanza and use the tail as a jumping-off point for one of Panic’s good time anthems, “Porch Song”. Short, sweet, and sending out that final message of ‘having a good time’, with the final note, the audience just exploded with cheer at the good time just had by all.
With nearly a two-hour second set almost completely absent of a pause or break, everyone inside the amphitheater knew that the encore would be as special as the rest of the night had already been and the band certainly did not disappoint. Swinging for the fences, Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” was the vehicle of choice to push the needle past the red into ecstasy, Herring’s and Bell’s comparative solos explosive and true to the form. Couple this with the fact that this was only the second time the piece has been performed since it got shelved in 2007 made it all that more special for those in the know. Accentuating the end of the night with a final nod to a life well lived, “Ain’t Life Grand” got the final slot and was played with as much swagger and verve as any other piece and was a perfect cap, giving everyone one last singalong with the band.
For the last thirty-seven years, Widespread Panic has been doing what they do best and pulling it off without apology or excuse. They are servants to the moment and give everything they have over to the muse of life and to anyone taking the time to listen. Although they have enough material and a fanbase overly dedicated to their cause, the fact that they continue to produce new music and change it up further reflects that this trip they are on is a story, their story, and at approaching four decades, they ain’t tired of telling or sharing it. There’s a reason that this band continues to sell out every night at one of the most famous venues in the world and why every year they have a standing reservation, and for anyone who might beg to differ that Widespread Panic is still alive and kicking, you might just try getting in to catch the lightning in sandstone at sixty-three hundred feet above sea level surrounded by Creation (Rock) itself. It’s a trip you won’t soon forget.