In the first of three sold out shows at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Widespread Panic, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, dazzled devoted fans with an old-school show that lasted close to three hours on Friday night.
Though showtime was slated for 7 p.m., it was close to 7:45 by the time the band stepped on stage, perhaps to give a little more time for those celebrating in the parking lot to wander in. It seemed appropriate that they kicked off the show with “Postcards,” with its line “This town is nuts, my kind of place, I don’t want to leave.” Given the love the band and fans have for Red Rocks shows, it sometimes feels like they could simply play every summer show there and the fans would journey from around the country to see them.
On “Ribs and Whiskey,” lead guitarist Jimmy Herring picked piercing trills over lead vocalist John Bell’s sultry, lazy slide playing while bassist Dave Schools laid down a funky groove underneath. Out of a long jam, percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz took a little solo and then locked in with Schools on the intro to the instrumental “Party At Your Mama’s House.”
During “Space Wrangler,” Herring’s enthusiastic guitar fills at times overwhelmed both keyboardist John “JoJo” Hermann and even Bell’s voice, but the groove spiraled out from the stage with reckless abandon.
Where set one had a very fierce edge to it, set two was a little more rounded, starting and ending with ripping rockers, with more exploratory, soulful, laid back tunes sandwiched in the middle, with some rarely-played gems for the faithful.
After rocking out on the New Orleans ode “Fishwater,” the band delved into the extended instrumental “L.A.,” which they haven’t played in two years. Herring weaved delicate melody lines around Bell’s simple rhythm fills, while Ortiz and drummer Todd Nance fired a perfect groove underneath.
Herring even changed his normal wailing guitar tones on a more country-funked out version of “Visiting Day.” Schools began to step it up with some lead bass lines on a dark take on “Do What You Like,” and on a long bass solo on the song-ending jam, delivered several bass bombs of doom that shook the amphitheater before Herring started a lazy, almost Clapton-like lead break on the intro to “Pleas.”
Near the end of the set, Herring seemed to tip a nod to founding guitarist Michael Houser, who died in 2002, using a volume pedal to great effect on a jam on “Papa’s Home.” Nance and Ortiz got a little late-set drum solo on the tail end of that jam.
Speaking of Houser, his playing is so unique that it sometimes feels there are certain songs the band just shouldn’t play anymore. “This Part of Town,” the first of a three-song encore, is one, as Houser’s signature lingering lead is what gave the song a palpable presence, and without it, the song falls flat. While it’s understandable that Herring wants to make songs more his own, on some, he should probably just play them as they were written.
As the band closed out with a fiery “Radio Child,” Bell stepped up and said they’d see everybody “tomorrow night.” The amphitheater then got turned into a disco, as the house lights mimicked a disco ball and the PA blared Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” a perfect backing track for fans to dance down to their cars.
Todd Radunsky is a Boulder-based photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.