It has been 21 years since I saw my first Widespread Panic show. In that time, I have easily seen the Georgia-based jam band a couple dozen times, more than any other act out there. It’s not that I’m a jam band fanatic. I can count the times I’ve seen Phish on one hand, and two of those were at Bonnaroo, where I was more interested in a bevy of other acts that weekend. With WSP though, there’s just something about the band that keeps me coming back. It may be the fact that there’s a definite Southern-fried infusion in the band’s music, although that seasoning is more original recipe than extra crispy. I also like the way they collaborate with other acts, like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the late Vic Chesnutt. It’s not even really the marathon shows the band puts on. Yeah, I know that the main point of seeing bands like WSP live are to groove out to the extended versions of album tracks, but I honestly would rather listen to the studio version of “Ain’t Life Grand” than hear a bootleg recording of the first show I attended at the Gaillard Exhibition Hall back in April of 1993. Still, when it comes to playing live, in my book, no one brings it like WSP.
Charleston has always been a popular stop when WSP toured, even back in the early days, when they played at the old Music Farm on East Bay Street and other smaller venues. More recently, the band has played at the North Charleston Coliseum in two-night stands. Last year, the band made a jump to the Family Circle Stadium on Daniel Island, so when the opportunity came this year for the Coliseum to serve as the location for the opening dates of the band’s fall tour, the powers that be at the North Charleston venue went all out, declaring it Widespread Panic Week and launching a “We Love Panic Fans” campaign on social media. Employees wore buttons with the slogan, and I could even see it projected onto the side of the Coliseum as I walked in from the parking lot Friday night.
Apparently, the band seemed to appreciate the positive vibe being put forth by the venue, because the band kicked off the first of two nights with a playful version of “Disco,” complete with a giant mirror ball projected on the huge video screen behind the band. Regular drummer Todd Nance wasn’t playing with the band that night. In his place was Duane Trucks, who plays regularly with WSP bassist Dave Schools in the band Hard Working Americans. As the evening progressed, Trucks seemed to handle his guest spot just fine, showing his chops during songs like “Diner” and “Radio Child.” Lead singer John Bell cradled his signature red hollow-body guitar and sang with his eyes squeezed shut, while lead guitarist Jimmy Herring wailed away on his axe. At a show earlier this year, Herring had proven his sense of endurance when a fan jumped onstage, assaulted Nance and a couple of crew members, and ended up stopping the show for a short time. Well, I should say almost stopped the show, because throughout the short but chaotic incident, Herring never stopped playing.
After a short break, the band returned to the stage and kicked things off with a double dose of ZZ Top, performing “Waitin‘ On the Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Crowd favorites during the second set included an excellent “Space Wrangler,” a long version of “Driving Song” that included drum and bass solos, and a great cover of Talking Heads‘ “Life During Wartime.” The second set ended with “Love Tractor,” but the band returned for an encore that included “Heaven” and “Red Hot Mama.” As usual, the show featured an impressive light show and the the expected crowd of noodle dancers, who kept people watchers like me entertained.
While I’ve seen WSP everywhere from a field outside of Athens, Georgia at the Super Jam III to the huge Bonnaroo main stage in Tennessee, I’ve rarely seen them as loose and playful as I did this past Friday. That isn’t to say that the band is normally stiff onstage—quite the contrary. Still, with all the love the band had been shown throughout the week here in America’s friendliest city as WSP prepared to kickoff their fall tour, the happiness and gratitude in the air was palpable.