Panic on the Rocks
Words & Images by Ian Rawn

A small band from Athens, GA has done what no other band has been able to accomplish. I am not referring to record album sales or even consecutive days on a top 10 billboard chart. Widespread Panic, a band which has persevered through lineup changes, countless days on the road, and the tragic death of band-mate/brother, Michael Houser, has recently completed an astounding string of sell-out concerts at the majestic Red Rocks amphitheater. The Beatles, Phish, Neil Young, Rush, and yes, even the Grateful Dead, were among the acts surpassed on Sunday night as "Panic" performed to their 32nd full house at the venue that is often referred to as "The most beautiful in the world". To commemorate the occasion, Mayor John Hickenlooper presented John Bell, David Schools, Jojo Herman, Sonny Ortiz, Todd Nance, and Jimmy Herring with a plaque marking the band's place in history; unfortunately I was unable to attend the ceremony. As a longstanding fan, of the often indescribable rock band, I was delighted to make the pilgrimage to the small town of Morrison, Colorado. It was an inspiring three days of friends, sun, and faith-restoring music.

Friday 6/27/2008

"Happy Friday", the raspy greeting of lead singer John Bell, kicked off the start of this monumental weekend, where old friends were united once again to share in the legendary experience known as "Panic on the Rocks". The show began quickly with a mix of classic and new songs, ranging from "Heroes" and "Old Neighborhood" (the band's way of welcoming travelers from all over the country) to various cover songs by the likes of Blood Kin and the ever shoeless Jerry Joseph. "North", a song that speaks of a Thoreauvian retreat was the highlight of the set. Joseph's masterful lyrics combined with JB's soulful voice got the crowd's fists pumping. I was surprised that Jerry did not join the band since he was playing a post-panic show that very night. To wrap up the set, the band was joined by former Black Crow's guitarist, Marc Ford. Marc sat in as JB impersonated the voice of his idol, Neil Young, by rattling out "Vampire Blues". "Makes Sense to Me" was the closer and was clearly a warm-up for things to come.

The second set quickly proved to be the polar opposite from the first. A slow "Porch Song" led off the set and stirred the crowd of ten thousand to their feet. Just as the riled crowd was at their peak, none other than Ivan Neville stepped on stage to join JoJo Herman on keys for a rendition of War's "Slippin' Into Darkness". Ivan Neville, known for his work with Dumpstaphunk and The Neville Brothers, lit-up the stage with his god-given talent on the piano. Oddly enough, this was a mere start to the second set. Immediately following the guest appearance, Widespread delved into a massive back-to-back sandwich that stole the show.

Surprise Valley > Bust It Big > Surprise Valley > Low Spark of High Heeled Boys > Pigeons > Low Spark of High Heeled Boys

Do I need to say anymore? This grouping blew-out any prior effort of the night and comprised 50 minutes of the 95 minute 2nd set which included the encore. A fantastic set of songs which was certainly a crowd pleaser. It will be hard not to skip directly to this super-sized "sammy" after I get home and download the tapes.

Following the show, I learned of a special ceremony. The mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, had presented the boys with a plaque commemorating the string of sell-outs and securing Widespread's spot in Red Rocks history. To top it all off, June 27th was declared "Widespread Panic Day" in Denver.

Saturday 6/28/2008

After nearly 5 hours of pre-gaming and observing the characters traveling from lot to lot, it was now time for round 2. What would this night bring? Many friends had done some statistical analysis and were certain they had locked down a majority of the night's songs. I have learned from experience, that shows are much more enjoyable without having any expectations of what is to come.

The first set on Saturday resembled the first on Friday; they were both fairly quick and lacked those intricate twists linking song to song. First set was not without its highlights. The second song in, was a much overdue "Postcard", which reaffirmed the crowds energy and the band's passion for playing at Red Rocks.

"This crowd is nuts! My kind of place.
I don't ever want to leave"

Other special moments from the set were the always welcome "Vacation" and the well- known Talking Head's cover, "Life During War Time" where the band was joined by longtime friend, Eric McFadden. Overall, the set was quite enjoyable but I still felt that the full "Panic" had not been released.

2: Space Wrangler > Fairies Wear Boots, Little Lilly > Walkin' (For Your Love), B of D > Machine > Barstools and Dreamers, Radio Child > Drums > Jack > Henry Parsons Died E: Sleepy Monkey, Solid Rock, No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature

Set 2 was a massive beast of unrelenting Widespread goodness. From start to finish I was enthralled by the bands tightness and song selection. "Space Wrangler", the title track from the band's first album in 1988, had not lost its touch after all these years. The rhythmic guitar and bubbly bass-lines flowed as the band took a dark turn into the newly acquired Black Sabbath song, "Fairies Wear Boots". This was just the third appearance of this wicked tune since its introduction in 2007. JB screamed, "All right now" as Jimmy Herring showed his chops playing seemingly thousands of notes in just a few seconds. It was a truly great cover and a major shock to the crowd. It would not be the last.

Easing it up, the light and melodic "Little Lilly" would follow. "Lilly" holds a special place in my heart, as it stirs emotions of my recently deceased grandmother, Lillian Osiason. This was one of the few songs by Widespread that she claimed to enjoy, though it was likely just due to the name. During the cool-down process, two great versions of "Walkin" and "B of D" eased their way into the rotation and led the way into the next highlight of the set, "Machine > Barstools". "Machine", a bass driven instrumental that has been part of the staple combination since the days of Mikey, has just now begun to come back to life. The power-packed couplet set the crowd on fire and triggered the packed amphitheater into a dancing frenzy. Nearing the end of the night, the band continued with a set of well-played originals, "Radio Child" and "Jack", and finished with "Henry Parsons Died", a well-worn staple for Saturday night shows.

The encore was a shocker! All in attendance were pleased to hear the rarely played "Sleepy Monkey". I could tell that Jimmy Herring had been working hard to master the hypnotic and complex guitar required to pull this song off. The song is not yet in the place of prior versions, but this was a fine effort and was notably better than the shorter version that was played in Savannah. Following "Sleepy Monkey" was a quick cover of Bob Dylan's "Solid Rock". Many at this point expected the show to end when The Boy's burst into Guess Who's "No Sugar Tonight". All of the fans were jolted with excitement as they sang along to the classic tune.

Sunday 6/29/2008

Sunday was a tremendous day and a memorable experience. I entered the venue merely one hour before the band hit the stage. Prior to that, I had been on a scenic hike at St. Mary's Glacier where I had taken in some breathtaking views. The only issue with this, was that I still needed to get my media pass. I would not be late for my one-time shot at photographing my favorite band at Red Rocks. After some struggle getting from the lot to will-call, I eventually got my pass and was inside the venue with 10 minutes to spare, and it only cost me half of a Rueben sandwich.

The band was now on the stage and had entered into the rarely played instrumental, "Happy". This was one of my favorite instrumentals from the Mikey days and this was only the 2nd time I had heard it played live since his passing. At this point, I had been clicking away trying to get as many solid shots as I could during my tight 3 song limit. I jumped with excitement when I heard the bass line for the next song. The band was going to play "Stir it Up" (last time played 10/13/2001), and I knew this would bring out that classic JB smile that I strive to capture at each show. I continued to snap away, and had just finished taking some crowd shows as "Chainsaw City" concluded, thus ending my photo session. By the time that I had packed up my gear and found my friends on the lucky 13th row; the set was almost over. Before I could get my bearings, water was flying everywhere as the band erupted into what would be a "Chilly Water > Bowlegged > Chilly Water" sandwich. Nothing but dark, heavy, delicious Panic for an auspicious set 1 closer. Fans, revitalized by the soaking that had just taken place, prepared for what would be the final set of the run.

After a warm final set welcome to the stage, Panic continued to play in the same vein as before. Dark, bluesy, hard-rock prevailed for the first 3 songs, a stellar combination of "Contentment Blues", "Rock", and "Worry". They lightened things immediately after with "Disco", a free-spirited optimistic instrumental that always gets the crowd moving. Nobody was prepared for what would happen next. Widespread was going to go out with a bang and make sure that this day would not soon be forgotten.

Conrad > Tie Your Shoes > Riders On The Storm > Fishwater > Cream Puff War

This set ending quintet of intense covers commingled with wailing originals took this show to new heights. High energy and high times in the Colorado sun, this was something to see. The band ended the weekend run with a three song encore that included the symbolic Talking Head's cover "Heaven".

"There is a party, everyone is there.
Everyone will leave at exactly the same time.
Its hard to imagine that nothing at all
Could be so exciting, and so much fun"

- Talking Heads

Following the show, we gathered in the lot to share our stories and favorite moments from the weekend knowing that soon it would be over and we would have to return to the day-to-day grind of "real" life. We finished the few remaining Fat Tires, sucked in our last breath of cool Colorado air and were off to the airport, Georgia bound.

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