Widespread Panic is one of those bands that people seem to either love or disregard, with not too much middle ground.  Hardcore fans of the band preach that they are rock royalty, with a second-to-none live show, and more musical talent in their respective pinky fingers than most other bands could ever dream of having.  Detractors write them off as just another band short on melody and high on repetitive jamming, serving only to give hippies an excuse to huff nitrus oxide and act a fool.   Surely the truth lies somewhere in between these polarizing viewpoints, and the Merchants of Rock decided to get to the bottom of it.  I am always game for a live rock show, so when the band announced a two-night stand at Richmond, VA’s National Theater, I decided it was time to see for myself what a Widespread Panic live show is all about.

When I walked through the doors of the National Theater, I had never heard as much as a single note from a Widespread Panic song.  While I might not have been the only newbie in the crowd, it was very clear right away that most of the other 1499 people in the crowd were hardcore fans of the band.  I heard more than one person claim they had seen the band more than 100 times, and countless others boasting double digit shows.  I actually got asked the “how many times” question several times throughout the evening, and while I briefly considered trying to claim “I’ve been to a few shows”, I was smart enough to realize I probably couldn’t withstand the follow up questions that were sure to come.  When I ultimately confessed that I was just a newbie in search of a good show, the fans were really cool about it, assuring me I had come to the right place.

Just a few minutes after the 7:00 show time the band got started with the first of two almost two-hour long sets .  As I weaved my way through an incredibly enthused crowd of dancing white people, the first thing I noticed was the band’s awesome set design complete with a huge circular HD screen as a backdrop.  The screen which swapped out imagery with every song was enhanced by a really cool matching light show that complimented the music perfectly.   The guys didn’t waste any time getting into their jam heavy show, jumping right into it with the eight minute opener “Happy”.   Right away Jimmy Herring’s fiery lead guitar caught my ears followed not far behind by Dave Schools’ powerful 6 string bass.  It was very clear right away that the claims of the band’s musical talent were not overstated. The entire band plays like a group of accomplished musicians who have a lot of pride in the quality of their live show.

While improvisational jamming is clearly a large part of what Panic does, the songs are not as out there and “trippy” as the stereotypes would suggest.  Most of the songs are actually pretty straight forward southern rock tunes topped with a whole lot of blues meets jazz guitar.   The songs themselves are far more melodic than many give them credit for, with more to offer than just the expansive solos.    Also overstated are the “you have to be on drugs to enjoy the show” stereotypes.  I for one was stone sober and managed to have a good time, and I wasn’t the only one.  Sure, there were a few(OK, more than a few) out of control fans that managed to get a pretty annoying (Yes, guy trying to dish out wet willies I’m talking to you), but it was really nothing out of the ordinary for a general admission rock concert.  The expansive nature of the bands material was a little out of my comfort zone, causing some of the songs to run together and sound a little repetitive, but I can chalk that up to my relative inexperience with the band’s music.

While the Panic concert experience is clearly (and rightfully so) geared towards hardcore fans of the band, there is still room for newbies looking for a good show.  The “happening” nature of a Panic show may be a little bit overwhelming for an outsider, but when you cut through the cliche, there is plenty of fun to be had by all.   Widespread Panic might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they are certainly a super tight band with a lot to offer fans of rock music.

I have included a live recording of my favorite song of the evening, “Henry Parsons Died” which was the show’s closer below.

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Curt is the Editor of Merchants of Rock. He also hates mayonnaise.