Live review: Widespread Panic @ Red Rocks Amphitheatre (June 27, 2008)

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There’s a reason Widespread Panic has played Red Rocks 32 times. Can you guess what it is? Photos by Mark T. Osler.

Friday, June 27, was “Widespread Panic Day” in the City and County of Denver. So what did the Athens, Ga.-based band jam band do to get such an honor? After three sold-out shows this weekend at Red Rocks, the band will have played 32 sold-out concerts at Red Rocks, more than any other in the venue’s history.

The six-piece group has achieved this while largely remaining under the radar. Even in the jam-band community, their concerts are a little more laidback. Phish and the Grateful Dead both reached a point where either’s audiences overwhelmed Red Rocks and the bands couldn’t play there anymore. Panic keeps coming back year after year, playing to a devoted fanbase that nevertheless keeps it a little mellower. And it could be said that you either get Panic or you don’t.

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Walking into the venue on Friday night, the crowd seemed to remember that. There were many new faces, but the vibe was the same, and the stage itself was sparse as ever. Panic is more than capable of filling the venue without resorting to a stack of Marshall amplifiers. The light show is good but never over the top; there is no pyro, no lasers or smoke machines or so much of the accoutrement of a modern rock show. Panic has always been a band that prefers to let its music do the talking.

What was unusual on this run was the punctuality, the band taking the stage promptly at 7 p.m. In years past, it might be 7:30 or 7:45 before the members wandered into view. After a quick hello from vocalist/guitarist John Bell, they launched into “Heroes,” and the groove was there right from the start. Lead guitarist Jimmy Herring, the band’s second since the untimely demise of founding member Michael Houser, clearly meshed well with the group.

Herring joined the group in August 2006, after honing his chops in jam bands like Aquarium Rescue Unit and former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s band Phil & Friends. In the context of Panic, Herring has changed his playing from when he was in those other outfits. It’s a faster, somewhat more complex style and it definitely drives Panic into a harder-edged sound. During “Holden Oversoul,” Herring soloed dexterously, pushing the song into a rousing crescendo before dropping off into a long jam, during which bassist Dave Schools added his dark bass.

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A Widespread Panic show is almost refreshing in light of the pretension of so many rock bands, who seem to feel the need to play to the crowd. Panic presents its music almost as the perfect accompaniment to its fans’ joy. In fact, it could be argued the band goes too far in that direction. During the first set, the band would step up, play a song, step back and tune up, then launch into another. There is almost no between-song banter, no “You guys are the best”-type pandering that so many rock bands engage in constantly, often making you wonder why they even bother.

Musically, there is a tightness that seems to reflect a lack of ego, although I’m sure all six members have one to some degree. Except for the guitar solos by Herring, no one instrument dominates a song.

Schools added some great funk-laced bass on “Old Neighborhood,” while keyboardist John “Jojo” Hermann started “Help Me Somebody” with great boogie piano. On rare occasions, Herring did nearly overwhelm a song with his solos, as on “North,” when he seemed to play a little too loudly and drown out Hermann and drummer Todd Nance.

Toward the end of the first set, former Black Crowes’ guitarist Marc Ford joined the band for a couple songs. On “Vampire,” both Herring and Bell stepped down a bit to allow Ford room to play and solo, and after the first chorus, both Herring and Ford stepped up with swift solos. The band ended the first set with “Makes Sense to Me,” which started with some pleasant bass from Schools and ended with crazed solos from Herring and Ford.

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After a 45-minute long break, the band took the stage again with Houser’s classic “Porch Song.” With Herring on guitar, the song doesn’t quite flow the same way it used to. Herring’s tone is crunchier and, at times, the transitions between verses seemed off-tempo.

During the first set, as a lead in to “Angel’s on High,” Herring had teased the guitar line from War’s classic “Slippin’ into Darkness.” After introducing another guest, Ivan Neville on keyboards, Panic launched into the tune with an extended intro, harmonizing well. Hermann and Neville also meshed nicely on keyboards, and Herring ended the song with an extended solo. In fact, the end of “Slippin’ into Darkness” was the last time before the encore that the band didn’t jam straight into another song. Starting up with “Surprise Valley,” the rest of the evening was a varied array of songs, jams and spacey exploration.

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Herring’s solos increasingly blurred during this section, often sounding overly-similar. Herring is, in some ways, too fast. His solos propel the songs in new directions, but there are times when he plays so quickly that it borders on metal, as during “Bust It Big” — a jarring sound in the context of Panic’s songs.

Another thing Panic seemed to scale back on was its usual drum solos. Percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz took a short one after “Bust it Big,” but by keeping it short kept it interesting. That led back into the end of “Surprise Valley.” Tempo problems plagued Panic’s version of Traffic’s classic “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” At times, it seemed they were rushing a little too much, and Ortiz’s percussion was chaotic. They jammed into “Pigeons,” with Schools playing some excellent bass leads to start the song, and Hermann took an extended organ solo after one chorus. After this strong point, they followed with another chaotic transition into “Low Spark,” which never really seemed to gel properly.

After closing the set with searing version of “Give,” which provided an excellent platform for another speedy Herring solo, the band came back for a two-song encore, ending the night with “Ain’t Life Grand.” Bell played mandolin, though you could barely hear it, but Herring was more restrained during the song and consequently it sounded stronger.

Judging by the crowd’s enthusiastic roar to almost all the nuances of the set, Panic’s sold-out string at Red Rocks will probably continue for years to come. You either get Panic or you don’t, and in Colorado at least, it seems many people do.

Reverb contributor Candace Horgan is a Denver-based writer.

Mark T. Osler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and regular contributor.

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