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Friday, October 31

Review & Photos: Widespread Panic - The Orpheum Theatre - Memphis, TN - October 18-19, 2014

As Widespread Panic makes its way around the Southern states, before working its way up for a quick Midwest run, the band graced Memphis’ Orpheum Theatre with its presence for the first time since the historic Ice Storm of 1994 for two magical nights. While WSP has come through Memphis multiple times in the past 20 years, the excitement in the air for this particular run was unmatched. First off, the Orpheum Theatre is a rather small venue for Panic, so tickets were fairly hard to come by, and second, the venue is literally across the street from the world famous Beale Street in the heart of the Birthplace of Rock & Roll. The main concern coming into the weekend was still the substitution of Duane Trucks on drums for original drummer Todd Nance. While they had a few shows to break him in before Memphis, the chatter around the Panic family seemed to think there were too many repeats, due to Duane’s limits in learning such a broad catalog. The scene outside the venue, however, seemed full of excitement and anticipation for what would become an exceptional two-night stand.
The band wasted no time kicking into high gear, starting off Night 1 with a funky “Pigeons” into a groovy “Who Do You Belong To?” The energy flowing from the crowd to the stage immediately took hold in the intimate, classic style theatre; it was so pungent and tangible, I felt like I could have cut it with a knife. After a quick run through The Band’s “Ophelia,” Widespread Panic blasted out a dirty “Bear’s Gone Fishin’.” It’s about this time (about 3 or 4 songs in) when I always realize that Dave Schools’ bass playing sounds lower than every other bassist. I know that he plays a 5-string bass, but even so, it just sounds so much deeper, and crowd members can feel it trembling in their bodies. Also, Jimmy Herring’s guitar solo on “Bear’s Gone Fishin’” blew me away and showed that he was ready to rock! The band brought the jam way down to transition into a beautiful “Blue Indian,” as the entire audience sang along, almost so loudly that I couldn’t hear JB singing. A solid take on “Rock” followed, even though they’ve played it almost every time they’ve come to Memphis in the past few years, but the next three songs left me absolutely stunned at set break. First, percussionist Sunny Ortiz brought out some kind of animal horn for a few blasts, which led into a massive take on the Talking Heads’ “Papa Legba,” with JB crooning the vocals and Jimmy Herring really starting to find his groove on lead guitar. Next came a rollercoaster ride of “Party At Your Mama’s House,” an all instrumental tune that started off slow and soft, with teasing guitar swells and harmonics from Jimmy, and built up into a nice, danceable groove by mid-song, slowed back down for a brief lull, and blasted into a melodic euphoria accompanying Jimmy’s swirling, singing guitar solo. The song ended with Schools and keyboardist JoJo Hermann in a funky groove and went straight into “Porch Song” to end the first set, leaving the audience high up in the clouds.
The second set started off strong and groovin’ as well, as the band was obviously feeling the energy and feeding off of it. “Goodpeople” opened the set, as people could be seen hurrying back to their seats, so they could dance and sing along. A quick “One Arm Steve,” with JoJo on lead vocals and a sick solo from Jimmy, kept the crowd dancing, while they slowed things down with a passionate “Pilgrims.” The band picked up the pace again with “Holden Oversoul,” which featured a dark verse and a dirty chorus. Jimmy definitely stepped his game up on this solo, and he would stay at the top of his game the rest of the night. “Give” came next, keeping the pace up and Jimmy at the helm, which featured some crafty percussion work from Ortiz in the background. “Saint Ex,” a deceptively slow tune, followed up with JB skillfully keeping the vocals accordingly soft. The heavy chorus and bridge of this tune, along with another scorching solo from Jimmy might has well have brought the roof down. About this time, I realized that I had never seen Jimmy Herring so energetic on stage. He always shreds, but usually he stands fairly still and grim-faced. On this night, however, he was making facial expressions and even bending forward and backward with his guitar as he belted out one after another incredible guitar solo. It was a sight I will never forget! Next, however, we got to see our first real taste of Duane’s drumming. So far, he hadn’t missed a beat, but he had been laying low. As he and Ortiz moved into the Drums section, Duane carefully accompanied, while Ortiz showed that he has not only kept up his chops, but he has actually improved them. As Ortiz picked up the pace, Duane kept up beautifully, waiting patiently and playing his part. What came next was a “Hatfield” to die for. The tune always blows me away with such a powerful elegance that it permeates the soul and runs right through my very veins, all the way out to my fingertips. After “Hatfield” fizzled out, the buzz among the crowd was unmistakable, as the band teased the next song slowly. JB broke out the first line, “Why don’t we do it on the road?” and the crowd erupted! The McCartney penned Beatles cover had not been played in 12 years (835 shows), the biggest bust-out of the weekend, and the band followed up with “Climb to Safety” to end the second set. The two-song encore consisted of “Drinking Muddy Water” and “Expiration Day,” leaving everyone in the building clamoring for more.
I left Night 1 feeling like I had just seen an historic Widespread Panic show, but if I had known what was in store for Night 2, I definitely would have held up on those thoughts. While they started off the evening a little less aggressive than the first night, the first set was solid, consisting of a “Disco” opener, one of my favorite opening tunes, into “Little Kin.” “Henry Parsons Died” kept the funk rollin’, while “Cotton Was King” brought back some of the fervor of the first night. The highlight of the first set came next, with “Greta,” kicked in by JoJo’s signature NOLA-style piano intro, followed by Michael Stanley’s beautiful “Let’s Get The Show On The Road” and “North” from Widespread Panic’s latest album Dirty Side Down (2010). “Greta” always rips, and Jimmy found his groove again here, while “Let’s Get This Show On The Road” put the entire crowd in a hypnotic lull. “North” blasted the energy back up, featuring some incredible group movement and blaring solos from Jimmy and JoJo. The band lulled us again with “May Your Glass Be Filled,” but kicked it right back up for a first set-ending “Tall Boy.”
The second set opened with the Willie Dixon penned “Taildragger,” which brought out the same massive energy as we saw on Night 1, followed by one of the biggest jams of the weekend on “Barstools and Dreamers,” led by funky bass lines from Schools and bringing the audience on a journey of euphoric peaks. The band took it down for the fade-out jam and went right into “Gimme,” which JoJo kicked straight into a monstrous “Ride Me High.” Originally by the late JJ Cale, Widespread Panic has made “Ride Me High” one of their signature covers, sung by JoJo and JB, and they sure did bring it on this version! The band patiently started the tune off slowly, and Duane led the build-up into Jimmy’s screaming lead guitar licks. The crowd rode the wave as the band brought the energy back down for a dirty bass solo from Schools, before cranking it back up again, with Jimmy at the helm, to lead into “Love Tractor,” keeping the energy level up. “Love Tractor” led straight into a hypnotic “Angels On High” that strayed out into the ether a bit after a percussion solo from Ortiz and ended a monstrous five-song run.
The band picked up the second half of the set with a funky “Old Neighborhood,” which featured a lengthy keyboard solo from JoJo, in which he led the band in a tease of “Give Up The Funk,” followed by a nice jam before Duane and Ortiz took over for an incredible “Drums” section. This time, Duane got to show off a bit more and really went to town! Duane really proved that he was the right man for the job. He’d been holding his ground throughout the entire two-night stand thus far, and his work with Ortiz on this particular “Drums” section was just incredible. Schools came in to add some bass into the section, and as the rest of the band began to come back onstage, a couple of guests were finally noticed. For the first time ever, Chris Robinson, lead singer of the Black Crowes and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, joined Widespread Panic on the stage. But wait… there’s more… CRB guitarist Neal Casal emerged as well! Casal is also the guitarist in the supergroup Hard Working Americans, along with Dave Schools and Duane Trucks. Thus, this collaboration has been dubbed Hard Working Panic Brotherhood, and oh what a treat it was! The group teased at the crowd with a swelling intro, as Robinson crooned with his harmonica, and War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness” blasted out from the speakers. This was my number one highlight of the entire weekend. This collaboration was unbelievable, and the groove they laid down on “Slippin’ Into Darkness” was just amazing. The first solo in this epic jam was given to Robinson on harmonica, while the rest of the band kept a solid groove, and then Casal had his turn to rock out a guitar solo. Duane and JoJo were the anchor on this tune as the rest of the group built up an absolutely stunning jam, intertwining lead lines and solos flawlessly. Finally, the last member of the CRB to join the stage, Adam MacDougall, crept in to sit next to JoJo and rock out some keyboards on a beautiful cover of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” sung by Robinson, to end the second set to thunderous applause. The entire Hard Working Panic Brotherhood reemerged for the encore, which consisted of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” and Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.”

Needless to say, the appearance of the CRB members put the icing on the cake of an incredible weekend in Memphis. The band is absolutely on fire, and Duane is holding his own and doing a great job filling some tough shoes. All in all, I would not be surprised if this two-night stand gets an archive release later on down the road. JB’s voice has never sounded better, Schools and JoJo continue to perform exceptionally well, as they always have, and Jimmy is rockin’ out and obviously having a blast. Here’s to many more years of Widespread Panic to come!
Words: Randy Harris 
Photos: Ellis Jones IV
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