Widespread Panic, Wolf Trap, Vienna, VA – 6/5
Everybody likes surprises. Fans of live music crave that feeling of the unknown, that feeling where once the house music cuts off and the band you came to see struts out on stage. The weight of the world is lifted as previous restrictions or boundaries are removed because the band could play anything. As each member casually reaches for their respected instrument you can feel the collective consciousness between the band and the crowd. It’s in that moment that fans feel free.
Widespread Panic graced the Wolf Trap Center for Performing Arts, in Vienna, VA, during their summer tour, for the first time in their already extensive career. This venue was absolutely perfect for the occasion as the aesthetically pleasing grounds surrounded by tall trees could only surpass the pristine acoustics. Nestled away on 130 acres of national park land in Fairfax County, just 20 minutes away from Washington, D.C. One of the most welcoming amenities about this venue is that coolers are welcome on the lawn. Patrons are encouraged to bring their own food and beverages. Needless to say people seemed to be in high spirits for the performance.
Widespread Panic took the stage at 7:30 PM to a screaming orchestra with a strong applause. John Bell stepped up to the microphone and greeted the crowd “Alright, lets have a little party here,” said the lead vocalist before Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz hit the opening notes to “Wonderin’” on his plethora of percussion instruments. This feel good number was a great opener as the orchestra started singing the catchy lyrics in unison with John Bell.
“Pilgrims” was well placed as the opening notes sparked a sigh of relief from the crowd. This number is a slow paced soft ballad that boasts the story of being on the road and sharing through personal experiences. Bell’s voice perfectly complements the tightness of the rest of the band as the song continued to unfold. The band shifted gears into “Tall Boy,” another high-energy crowd-favorite that ignited a sing-along with the crowd as John “JoJo” Hermann took over the lead vocals. Despite being a New York City native, Hermann naturally has a soulful voice rich with southern twang. After graduating from college, Hermann moved to Oxford, Mississippi where he began touring regionally with local band Beanland (also featuring former guitar player for Widespread Panic; George McConnell) before joining Widespread Panic in 1992. Hermann’s New Orleans style chops on the keys went well together with Jimmy Herring playing the catchy rift that makes up this classic staple for the band.
Dave Schools stepped up with authority as he struck the opening notes to “Bowlegged Woman” on his bass. As the thunderous sound echoed throughout the building the crowd was simultaneously whiplashed into a dancing frenzy. The band was fully locked in and firing from all cylinders. Herring really opened it up letting his guitar wail and moan as the rest of the band comfortably keep the groove alive. Todd Nance and Ortiz kept the rhythm consistent and laid the perfect foundation for Herring to be inventive and inspired.
The band dipped into their catalog from Dirty Side Down, their last studio effort, released in 2010, when they went into “Saint Ex,” the opening track on the album. This dark, multi-layered song gets its inspiration from a small dose of history. French author, Antoine de Saint Exupery ( Le Petit Prince) was flying during WWII when a German pilot shot down Saint Ex in 1944. The plane Saint Ex was flying had been indentified in 2004, ending the sixty-year-old mystery of the author’s disappearance. Both pilots were on a simple reconnaissance mission so it was a total fluke they had encountered one another. The most fascinating part is that the German pilot was a huge fan of the Saint Ex and had he known who was flying the plane, he would have ceased to open fire. This was all brought to Bell’s attention when his father sent him a New York Times article about the eighty-five year old German WWII pilot. The lyrics, “sometimes they see you/just now they don’t/Maybe this is a lucky day/or a penny on the way home/sit between the clouds for cover/raindrops hide in the sea,” resonate perfectly with the deep complexity of this composition.
One of my personal highlights came next when the band took a swing at Cat Stevens’ “Trouble,” a song they have been covering since 1989. Bell’s voice was so graceful as he delivered the tone of the song perfectly. While this song very rarely breaks the five-minute margin, it really is a treat to hear the band cover this gem. The first set was closed out with the sheer firepower of “Heroes” > “Impossible” > “Imitation Leather Shoes” leaving the fans satisfies and optimistic for what was yet to unfold the rest of the show.
The second set opened up with one of the band’s classic staples, “All Time Low.” While the lyrics posses a melancholy theme, the music is full of power and energy. The crowd was in full appreciation as they soaked up the energy from the band. As this song started winding down, the band softly hit the chords to “Pickin’ Up The Pieces,” a very laid back song that always puts the crowd in a trance like state of mind. Herring took a beautiful solo that really captivated the audience as he held particular notes and drew them out, almost as if his guitar was humming. Herring is a true master of his craft and an absolute perfect fit for this band. It becomes more and more evident each time I’m fortunate enough to see them live that Herring is very happy to be apart of this group. “You Got Yours” surfaced next and showcased Herman’s funky effects on the organ. The band was locked in tight and really feeling the groove before the band went into “Airplane,” one of the band’s most recognizable songs since its inception in 1994. The band really opened this one up as Herring took several high-energy solos full of rapid speed. Schools followed and took a high-energy solo that was complimented by Herman’s chops on the keys. This version clocked in at nearly 12 minutes long and not a second was wasted.
“Shut Up and Drive” > “Bear’s Gone Fishing” > “I’m Not Alone” filled the second set nicely as the band really flexed their range and delivered these three songs with conviction. As this three song segue came to a halt Ortiz became banging on his percussion instruments and blowing a whistle igniting the opening sequence to “Fishwater,” another crowd favorite that never ceases to get the crowd moving. Keeping the theme of New Orleans alive in this song, Herman began wailing away at the keys pushing the rest of the band to their limits, just to break it off and let Herring rip another solo. This was the longest jam of the evening proudly clocking in at over 13 minutes. Ortiz and Nance took a nice extended drum and percussion breakdown in the middle of the song that was brought back around to find Schools stepping back in with a thick funky effect on his bass before the rest of the band returned with a vengeance. The band closed out the second set with “Porch Song” another song that never ceases to satisfy even the most experience fans of the band.
After a quick and professional encore break the band returned to the stage to tip their hats to their late friend Vic Chesnutt as they covered “Aunt Avis,” an absolute beautiful song written by Chesnutt. The band could have ended the show right there and I’m sure the crowd would have been satisfied but they capped off the evening with flair as they covered “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature,” by The Guess Who. This song erupted another sing-a-long between the band and the crowd, as it was evidently clear that everyone in attendance was blown away with contentment.
One thing that’s for certain, one thing that’s for sure, the group has continued to prove that they’re just as much of a powerhouse as they were in the early 2000’s and they’ve matured gracefully into rock and roll royalty. Widespread Panic will continue to tour throughout the summer and have recently announced a fall tour, be sure to catch them live to truly see the band’s range and assortment in a live atmosphere as they continue to push the envelope like the true professionals that they are.