Widespread Panic Bestows Ultimate Trust in New Orleans November 8, 2019 14:44

Words by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen

Photos by Craig Baird: Home Team Photography

Now that I’ve had several days to regroup, it seems fitting to sit down and revisit last weekend’s Halloween festivities with Widespread Panic. After 18 years of seeing this band, I finally had the opportunity to make this special tradition a priority. Halloween is always amongst the biggest annual events for any major touring act, and Widespread Panic never fails to deliver to its fervent fan base. 

Speculation was rampant, as expected, leading into Thursday night’s show. Upon entering UNO Arena, fans were introduced to an elaborate stage setup, which included Christmas decorations, a taxi cab, a wrestling wring, and what appeared to be the back drop of a comedy club. We began wondering if these props could somehow be tied to Andy Kaufman, and this would prove to be the case later in the night. The band took the stage, and immediately invited NOLA’s own George Porter Jr. to join them on stage. Bassist Dave Schools let George take the lead on bass, while he focused his efforts on the rubber chicken, and the band appropriately kicked into The Meters’ “Chicken Strut.” They proceeded to get the entire room singing along for “Hey Pocky Way,” another Meters’ classic. 

The first set continued with The Talking Heads’ “Papa Legba,” and originals such as “One Arm Steve,” “Love Tractor,” “Hatfield,” “All Time Low,” and “Pilgrims” would follow. It had been two and a half years since the last cover of James Taylor’s “Knockin’ Round the Zoo” (JazzFest 2017), which made this set closer that much more raucous. The second set began with the theme to Mighty Mouse playing over the PA, before the band dropped into Bloodkin’s “Henry Parsons Died.” This was followed by a powerful “Surprise Valley” > “Arleen” > “Surprise Valley.” We stomped around the “Old Neighborhood” just before a rockin’ take on “Holden Oversoul.” The next bust out came in the form of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” (LTP 10/08/14 Montgomery, AL), and “Tallboy” had the whole place going wild. 

The Halloween antics really began taking shape from here. John Bell welcomed REM’s Mike Mills to the stage, and the debut of Lou Reef’s “Perfect Day” was a beautiful surprise. At some point, a man posted up at a small table on stage left, where he proceeded to eat a meal and drink wine. Two more debuts then surfaced in the form of David Bowie’s “Starman” and REM’s “Man on the Moon” both with the help of Mills on guitar/bass and Paul Agostino on keys. “Porch Song” was an absolutely perfect way to close out this set.

The encore was without a doubt one of the more interesting live music experiences of my life. The band returned to the stage with Mills and Agostino, while drummer Duane Trucks was on bass and Dave Schools front and center. I had absolutely no idea what was going on at the time, but Schools proceeded to inform us all that “I Trusted You” for the better part of five minutes (see video below). Two more highly obscure Andy Kaufman nods followed with “This Friendly World” and “Volare,” before tour manager Steve Lopez took the stage to ask the audience to please stop smoking in the building.  This is when things got really bizarre.

John Bell invited the infamous Tony Clifton to the stage. I will go ahead and admit that I didn’t realize this was keyboardist JoJo Hermann until the following day. He began singing about “Tacos” being cheap, before a “heckler” started screaming obscenities at him. Clifton appeared to be fed up with said heckler, told her to suck one, and she jumped on stage to throw multiple drinks at the band. At this point, the band exited the stage, security escorted the woman off stage, the lights came on, and we all wondered, “what the fuck just happened?” The band would immediately offer an emphatic apology to the fans via social media, which proved to be all part of an extensive Andy Kaufman inspired Halloween gag.  Like I said, it was an interesting night, but it was also pure genius, in my humble opinion.

Watch Widespread Panic perform "I Trusted You" here:

The Panic faithful had plenty to discuss leading into Friday night’s show. Was this the last of the shenanigans, or would this be a common theme throughout the weekend?  We wouldn’t see any gags on night two, but Jesus Christ, did we get a hot show. The first set was one big “Bowlegged” > “Chilly Sandwich,” with tunes such as “”Little Lilly,” “Visiting Day,” “Walkin’ (For Your Love),” and “You Got Yours” thrown in the middle. JB had a slight technical malfunction during “Christmas Katie,” which left the frontman singing without his guitar for the first half of the song. The highlight of the set had to be the first “Entering a Black Hole Backwards” since 2014 dropping back into “Chilly Water,” which would then segue back into “Bowlegged.” That is Widespread Panic at its finest. 

 Everyone’s got their own opinion, but for me, the perfect Panic set begins with “Disco" > "Diner.” This smokin' set continued with “Blackout Blues,” “The Last Straw, and “Mercy,” before we got our first “Drums” of the weekend. They came back out guns blazing with “Chainsaw City” and “Four Cornered Room,” then “Jack” led straight into a “Red Hot Mama” from Louisiana that nearly brought the house down. The band revisited the 2017 Halloween show with The Dillards’ “There is a Time,” which was originally performed on the Andy Griffith Show, and Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me” would put the finishing touches on a damn near flawless show.

I think we were all convinced that it was Sunday at this point, but fortunately, this run began on a Thursday night. What was left in the tank for Saturday? We were in for a treat…that’s for sure. We started with a flashback to Pulp Fiction when guitarist Jimmy Herring ripped into “Rumble,” an instrumental by Link Wray & His Ray Men. The set continued with Tom Waits’ “Goin’ Out West” and “Greta,” and “Climb to Safety” would follow. Being that this song has become somewhat of a Panic anthem (even though it’s Jerry Joseph’s song), it’s reputation is somewhat controversial. I, for one, will never get tired of hearing it. On this night, I experienced one of the more euphoric body highs of my life during the first chorus. Every hair of my body was standing on edge, and it felt really fucking good.

“Junior” and “Makes Sense to Me” were next on the list, just before one of the weekend’s most exciting moments. Dumpstaphunk’s Ivan Neville joined the band for an amazing sequence of “Sleepy Monkey” > “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” (Dr. John) > “Cream Puff War" (Grateful Dead). Does it get any hotter than that?  The second set was equally as impressive. We were off to the races with “Radio Child” and “Thought Sausage.” Another bust out surfaced with John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s “The Ballad of John & Yoko.” “Honkey Red” set a super heavy, serious tone, before an absolutely perfect “Driving Song” was played. “Breathing Slow” led into another rager, “Impossible,” and Vampire Blues came next. “Pigeons” is always a treat, especially when “Papa’s Home” is looming in the distance. Trucks and percussionist Sonny Ortiz led us through another impressive “Drums,” which landed back into “Papa’s” just in time for a set closing “Action Man.” 

While I’ve seen several nods to the late Col. Bruce Hampton, it had been about eight years (02/14/11) since I had seen Panic play “Basically Frightened.” This would begin the encore and lead perfectly into “Blue Indian.” It then appeared that “Postcard” would close out the weekend. Per usual, the entire building was ready to shout, “This town is nuts. My kind of place. I don’t ever wanna leave.” Not so fast, y’all.  We were treated to a reprise of “I Trusted You,” and I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so hard. Are you kidding me?

There were high expectations for my first Halloween with Panic, and this band never lets me down. What almost seemed like a page out of the Phish playbook made this weekend as unique as any I’ve experienced. These musical journeys always seem to leave us feeling recharged and grateful for this fortunate life we live. There is nothing I’d rather do than embark on a weekend of mayhem with some of the best friends you could ever ask for, along with one of the greatest bands to ever take the stage.