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National Beat: Widespread Panic – I Wasn’t Ready For This!

Widespread Panic doing what they do.
Widespread Panic doing what they do.
all photos by Nick McCabe - Front Row Photo

Widespread Panic playing at The Grand Sierra Resort in Reno


By Nick McCabe – Front Row Photo

Let me point out, before I get called out, that I knew nothing about Widespread Panic before Sunday night (March 30). I knew ‘of’ them, which is to say, I knew they had been around a very long time and were a very popular band, and that’s not very much knowledge at all. The first indication that this was going to be something special was when I walked into The Grand Sierra Resort an hour before showtime and the line of people waiting to get into the Grand Theatre ran all the way across the casino to the hallway leading to the doors from the parking lot. I felt like I had stepped back in time and was walking into a Grateful Dead Show, which I have done many, many times. Tie-dyes, printed skirts, festive hats, party atmosphere, sandals… it was all good! There was even a vendor walking around with his case of hand crafted handiworks selling them from his case….in the casino! It didn’t look right, but security left him alone.

Once inside the theatre the atmosphere became even more festive. The sweet smell of some kind of burning herb filled the air. Hm! Perhaps it was innocence…perhaps not, but all of the sudden I had an inexplicable desire to get some munchies (I fought it off). I staked my claim at a table so that I would have a ‘home base’ where I could return too after I shot my pictures from the ‘pit’ during the first three songs. The audience was a show in itself. The crowd spanned at least five decades in age, ranging from early 20’s to well over 60 and maybe even into their 70’s. That’s a pretty impressive demographic.

Widespread Panic took the stage at just about 8:30. I didn’t recognize the first song. I didn’t recognize the second song, or the third… after all, this was my first WP show. Honestly, I didn’t recognize any of their songs, but that didn’t take away from having a great time and loving what they played. One of the great things about live music is hearing your favorite songs played live by the people that made them famous. I really thought that I would eventually recognize something and I finally did, but they were covers. My new-bee status made it a bit of a challenge to get into it at first, but as I got used to and familiar with their style of play, I did get into it - very much so as a matter of fact. In the course of the evening they played fantastic interpretations of Dr. Johns “I Walk on Guilded Splinters”, Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”, and during their encore Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”, the later having Booker T. Washington Whites “Fixin’ to Die” inserted into the middle of it.

The theatre was absolutely packed. When I returned to my table after shooting my pictures it was a challenge to navigate the thick crowds of partiers dancing in the aisles. There was next to no room to get around. I still don’t quite understand how people can get from the bar to their seats with several drinks in their hands without spilling them. That is an achievement of Olympic proportions all its own! Everybody was having a fantastic time. It was more than obvious to me that Widespread Panic has a dedicated following of regulars, just like the Grateful Dead had back in the day. Many of the dancers appeared to be in a trance like euphoric state with hands raised to the heavens, eyes closed and blissful smiles across their faces. Also like a Dead show there were ‘tapers’ set up (for those of you that are more not in the know, tapers are fans with recording equipment set up in the audience).

Did I mention the lights? The lights were amazing. Computerized programming made them come alive. There’s no doubt that there are probably hundreds of hours of work that have gone into the lighting for the show. There was a backdrop curtain of star like lights, a row of 30 lights (seven in each) across the top of that that swiveled and changed colors constantly, an assortment of ‘bottle lights’ that hung from above, bright spots above all the others, and on and on… The lights would form ‘cones’ of light at times that would expand and contract with the music. I haven’t seen lighting this well produced since Pink Floyd.

A typical concert is about 90 minutes long. This was not a typical concert. As previously mentioned the band took the stage at about 8:30. At 9:48 they took a break! (A break? Are you kidding me? I had to get up at 5:30AM the next morning!) Once again, like a Dead show, you never know what you’re going to get. They played until 12:30 in the morning, and it did not get old. It was a fantastic experience for me. I miss the ‘jam band’ experience since there have been no Grateful Dead shows to go to. There are other bands in the genre, but they have never done it for me. This band of talented players with their constant eye contact and silent communication was a thrill to experience. There is an art to jamming like this. You have to have a level of communication that goes beyond the spoken word. A note…a pattern…a look…a body jerk… It comes with experience and familiarity.

The only thing I missed, and maybe it’s part of the Widespread Panic culture, was that nobody in the band ever said a word to the audience. Not a single word.

For a more complete photo gallery, click here. There are a lot of gems to see!

…and the beat goes on.

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