“It seems that after 30 years of almost constant touring the guys in WSP are preparing to wind things down a bit.”
On April 20, 1993 I was asked by a friend at the College of Charleston that worked for the College Activities Board (C.A.B.) to help out with the catering at a concert being put on at the Galliard Auditorium’s Exhibition Hall. The band was Widespread Panic, and they were just beginning to make waves across the radio landscape thanks to the release of their latest album, “Everyday.”
I was then interning at local rock radio station 96 Wave, which was playing a couple of songs from the album, and I jumped at the chance to see the Athens, Georgia outfit. After shopping for some of the food and drink items on WSP’s tour rider and setting things up backstage, I was then recruited to stand next to one of the light stands that had been set up in front of the stage, making sure that none of the noodle-dancers in attendance knocked said lights into the crowd.
I vividly remember a couple of cops standing up front, shoving hippie kids and frat boys away from the stage (really just a raised platform), while the band played. It was a good show, and a great introduction to a band I would go on to see nearly two-dozen times over the next 23 years.
Despite having seen WSP multiple times, I’m not really what you’d cal a jam band fan. I’ve seen Phish a few times, experienced the various Leftover-Moe-McGee-type bands, and even caught The Dead (The original members of The Grateful Dead minus the late Jerry Garcia) at Bonnaroo in 2004. Despite this impressive immersion into the jam band culture, I’ve never noodle danced, sold grilled-cheese sandwiches in the parking lot before a show, or wandered around in front of a venue begging for a free ticket by saying, “I need a miracle!”
Something about WSP’s music kept me coming back, though, to the Music Farm, the Super Jam in Athens, Brittlebank Park, Bonnaroo, and most of all to the North Charleston Coliseum. WSP has played the Coliseum off Montague Avenue multiple times in the last decade. Last Friday night marked an appearance that proved to be both electrifying and bittersweet. It seems that after 30 years of almost constant touring the guys in WSP are preparing to wind things down a bit.
Lead singer and guitarist John Bell, bassist Dave Schools, and the rest of the band aren’t going to quit touring entirely, but they have apparently made a collective decision to take more time off to devote to family and outside projects. This means that this past Friday’s show might be the last time local fans of WSP might see their band for awhile.
Prior to Friday night’s show the stage was bathed in purple light while the greatest hits of Prince played over the PA system. Fans were debating what Prince cover the band might play during the show in tribute to the Purple One, who had passed away just days prior. When the band finally took to the stage, they kicked into “Steven’s Cat,” and the crowd filling the floor and lower bowl of the Coliseum fell into a groove that lasted through both sets that night.
Ultimately, there was no Prince tribute actually performed by WSP, but the band still threw out plenty of covers during the evening. Highlights include Willie Dixon’s “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind,” Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues,” Brute’s “Let’s Get Down to Business,” The Meters’ “It Ain’t No Use,” and Talking Heads’ “Papa Legba.” Cover songs even rounded out both sets (Bill Withers’ “Use Me” and Tom Waits “Goin’ Out West” respectively) and closed out the show (Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die”).
In between were WSP tunes such as “Little Kin,” “Big Wooly Mammoth,” “Pigeons,” and “Driving Song” drifted out over the crowd as a psychedelic light show pulsated behind the band. “This feels like playing Captain Harry’s back in 1986,” grinned Bell after one song, referring to the now defunct legendary watering hole on Cumberland Street. The members of WSP have always enjoyed a warm relationship with the people of Charleston, and the North Charleston Coliseum has always made both the band and its fans feel welcome. On Friday night every Coliseum employee could be seen sporting a button that read “We (Heart) Panic Fans.”
While the shows by the beloved Georgia jam band might become far fewer in the coming years, this city will no doubt welcome WSP back when they do decide to venture this way. In a way, for me seeing the band play on Friday night took me back to that first experience nearly 23 years ago. This time though I wasn’t tied up having to babysit a lighting pole.