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Story by Mike Linneman
The band took the stage about 20 minutes late, but the crowd had begun their part of this experience long before. The throngs of men and women were in a sense locked into a dancing "starters block" beaming smiles and busting at the seams to unleash the fury that is 2000 plus people doing the Hippie dance at the same time.
WP came out and got it going with no ramp up. They just started jamming. Forty-five minutes into the show, the set list, which notoriously is never the same, became irrelevant to the atmosphere that the band and the audience had created at Riverside. No wonder that WP sold out all three shows almost immediately. John Bell lead the band, showcasing his band-mates and trading off leads and riffs in songs that seemed to never end at times. Alas, the crowd did not want them to end and those two elements makes for a party for newcomers and groupies alike. Percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz made excellent use of speed & rhythm and joined bassist David Schools in supplying the funk.
Drummer Todd Nance lying low and rising high with an always steady beat, kept the band at pace and provided a wonderful partner to Sunny's Latin beats. Keyboardist "Jojo" Hermann showcased his skills on the Hammond organ and occasionally provided vocals.
With credits ranging from The Allman Bros. Band and Phil Lesh and Friends, the lead guitarist, Jimmy Herring is a beast. His leads were smooth and fiery, running up and down the fret board and using the wah wah pedal just to remind you that this is a jam band with a make love not war mentality and to keep the hard edges "groovy."
While REM may have been the most recognizable band coming out of the collegiate ranks of the active, late-'80s Athens, Georgia music scene, Widespread Panic emerged and seemed to pride itself on being the opposite of that more famous band. Widespread Panic and their jamband brethren Phish, The Dave Mathews Band, String Cheese Incident and the half-dozen other groups that have stepped to the fore since Jerry Garcia's unfortunate passing, have found their place in the music world through constant and laborious touring in lieu of airplay or album sales. Word of mouth is so essential to a jam bands longevity that it almost seems like a preordained album title. Now almost 20 years later, Widespread's enduring popularity flies in the face of conventional wisdom on how to get ahead as a rock band in this age of a one size fits all music industry.
It was a fantastic show from a band that's been doing it year after year, even five years after the passing of its founding member, Michael Houser. One person I spoke to kept saying how it reminded him of almost every concert from the '60s. A traveling Woodstock permeation. Lots of good will, great looking audience and a energy that only a jam band with their very own traveling groupies can bring.
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