The thing about jam bands is that because they take chances, they can go from awful to brilliant in the span of a couple of days. On Thursday, Widespread Panic fell flat. On Sunday afternoon at Red Rocks, they delivered the goods.
Of course, longtime Panic fans, sometimes called “Spreadheads,” would not find that surprising. There is a common saying among them: “Never miss a Sunday show.” In fact, when Widespread Panic played an acoustic show Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium in February 2012, they tipped their hat to that legend and actually filmed fans outside the venue talking about the “Never miss a Sunday show,” mantra. (It’s on YouTube here.)
Sunday shows at Red Rocks always begin early, at 4 p.m., perhaps so that the out-of-towners get more rest or an early start on traveling home. The band seemed to be having fun with the crowd by playing ’70s and ’80s pop songs on the PA before the show, such as the theme from “Greatest American Hero” and Starlight Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight.” As the latter ended, the band took the stage, and lead singer John Bell addressed the crowd and tipped another nod to the early start by growling, “So that’s what you all look like.”
Having fun seemed to be the theme of the day, as the band opened with a jaunty “Happy,” before launching into a soaring “Airplane,” which featured a long jam at the end dominated by guitarist Jimmy Herring’s guitar solo that alternated between relaxed riffing and rifling trills.
Panic mixed up the pacing during the first set, throwing in some quieter slow tunes like “Expiration Day” with the furious instrumental “Machine.” The highlight was the closing pair of “Holden Oversoul” and the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime,” which get the crowd boogieing even harder.
The second set kicked off with bassist Dave Schools dropping bass bombs of doom on a raunchy “Bowlegged Woman.” The band quickly shifted into a short jam at the end that resolved with John “JoJo” Hermann tearing into the rolling piano line that starts “Bust It Big.” The song took about a minute to really get going, but the long ending solos by first Herring, then Hermann, made up for the earlier stutter step.
In my review of the Thursday show, I noted that Herring’s playing sometimes seems to clash with the overall sound of the band. One song that has always been evident on is “Rebirtha.” When the band played that song with founding guitarist Michael Houser, the song, and especially the opening guitar lick, seemed to flow like water, whereas with Herring, who seemed to play the lick an octave or two down from where Houser did on Sunday.
The standout jam of the night came late in the second set on “Pleas,” with Herring going into overdrive while Bell and Hermann provided a punchy platform for Herring’s guitar explorations.
Perhaps as a tip to the band closing the last night of its first four-night run at Red Rocks (they usually play three), they stepped up with a four-song encore, including the rarely played cover of “Jesus Just Left Chicago.”
Happy -> Airplane -> Expiration Day, Can’t Get High, Visiting Day, Machine -> Barstools and Dreamers, Pilgrims, May Your Glass Be Filled > Holden Oversoul, Life During Wartime
Bowlegged Woman -> Bust It Big -> Bowlegged Woman, Saint Ex, Rebirtha -> Me and The Devil Blues -> Blight , Last Straw -> Pleas -> Jack -> Mr. Soul, E: Dirty Side Down, End Of The Show, Jesus Just Left Chicago, Travelin’ Light
Lisa Higginbotham is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. See more of her work here.