My relationship with Widespread Panic is a bit strained, to say the least. Roughly 4 years ago I was sitting in a beer littered apartment, bathing in apathy with my then roommate. He'd recently developed an all consuming obsession with the band and had subjected the other three of us living alongside him to soak in at least 3 hours of their music a day. Admittedly I don't think I ever gave Widespread an honest chance back then and for what reason I'm still not entirely sure, but I'm inclined to say that my contempt for the band was a reactionary conclusion in defiance of my roommates fanaticism. Yeah they were good, but not good enough to warrant the sort of endless play they received in my abode. Years later and after having seen them live 4 times, I still can't say I truly understand the obsession, but I can say I do appreciate how it's possible to like them as much as people do.
Over the past weekend the band graced Milwaukee with a 3-night run at the Riverside, something which has become standard autumn protocol for the band. Reports of savage debauchery and astronomical bar-tabs wafted through the air all weekend, as the band's followers descended upon the city from the farthest reaches of the continent. Widespread's following is nearly unparalleled and it's legacy is something mystical. They are one of those bands that has been inexplicably adopted by nearly every type of character you could pull from Hunter S. Thompson's oeuvre; at any given show you're likely to pee next to a drunk biker, be offered a hit of acid from a well-aged Dead-Head, discuss the merits of lesser bands with a 42 year old accountant, and bump into an old roommate.
After wading through a drunken line of smokers, I made my way up to the highest balcony, where I was met by familiar faces and the resounding fact that I was by far the most docile and sober patron in the Riverside. While I wasn't surprised by the crowd's rowdiness, it was still an endlessly hilarious, even occasionally awe inducing, sight to take in. As the liquor-fueled bonanza, that teetered on the edge of devolving into a Dionysian Orgia, ensued I focused my attention to uncovering Widespread Panic's elusive, magical trait that kept these fine participants in the pursuit of the American dream, running on fumes from coast to coast.
Taking to the stage and with no banter, Widespread embarked upon a set that melded their characteristically thick, whiskey marinated jams with their masterfully curated covers, which included songs by J.J. Cale and Murray Mclauchlan. The amount of music one can be turned onto by the band is truly extraordinary and points to the absurd breadth of knowledge they bring to every show. The appeal of Widespread last night, though, was a blend of nuanced characteristics, but most significantly I was enamored with the way their nonchalance coated their absurd technical abilities with an air of class and professionalism, which served to enshrine their legacy as probably one of the greatest rock bands ever. But this is also ultimately what I think makes them such a difficult band for me to get behind. Their sound is the epitome of rock n' roll to me, so much so that their air-tight precision occasionally makes me feel as if they are going through the motions and unwilling, or rather not asked by their fans to challenge themselves artistically. Ultimately a Widespread Panic show is a lot like looking at a Vermeer painting, you're looking at something with extraordinary detail and perfect execution, but it's a painting that was done within the parameters of a well defined period. I was in awe when I saw a few Vermeer's in person this past summer, but truthfully I had more fun contemplating Picasso in the neighboring gallery.But as the set rambled on last night I realized I'd been served a full shot of humility, standing next to me was my old roommate and while I still couldn't fully understand the fanaticism that Widespread brings out of him, I can now at least appreciate it and share in the enjoyment…to some degree.
Set 1- Little Kin, Travelin' Light, Wondering > Space Wrangler, Tail Dragger, Junior, Shut Up and Drive, Who Do You Belong To?, Henry Parsons Died
Set 2-Chainsaw City > Angels on High > Ride Me High > Drums > Aunt Avis > Protein Drink/Sewing Machine
Encore- Honky Red, Let's Get The Show On the Road, Ain't Life Grand
(Photo Courtesy of Pabst/Riverside/Turner Hall Facebook Page)