Photos: Adam Miszewski
After a decade of playing Milwaukee’s Riverside Theatre, it appears that the word is finally out about these annual “can’t miss” Widespread Panic shows. And although the 2016 version of this run brought fans from four corners of the country (tickets were snatched up at a record pace), it’s clear that it’d take at least another decade before everyone who should experience this run of shows gets an opportunity to.
With that in mind, my objective with this piece is to give you a feel for what it’s like to be in the room and part of the action – what makes this run so special. My job has been made a lot easier thanks to the photography of Adam Miszewski, our Milwaukee correspondent whose pictures recreate the precise feel of not only the action on stage, but also the unique contours of the room and energy of a crowd dropped into an impossibly fun situation. One in which the particulars of their own adventure sets the table for what the band and the city is ready to spring on them.
This year’s Milwaukee run kicked off a very short (8 shows in 4 cities) late fall tour, which in and of itself may be something of a preview of Widespread Panic in years to come. For myself, it was study in two different ways of enjoying the show. Friday night was spent in my more typical thoughtful, analytical mode, while Saturday was spent (in perhaps the typical Panic fan’s default mode) in an all-out rapture, influenced as much by certain “outside” factors as what was happening on stage.
But neither scenario could have proceeded as well as it did without The Riverside being what it is – perfectly suited for both cases.
Standing in line on Saturday, I was chatting up a local who provided some context for how The Riverside, its downtown “sister venues”, and even Panic’s annual appearance fits in with the city’s arts and live music renaissance. A little over a decade ago, none of this was possible. It took concerted effort, and some financial risk, to make it happen.
Investors looked at what was existing in downtown Milwaukee – some small to mid-sized, older and under-utilized venues, and envisioned them at the center of an eco-system that would fill hotel rooms, bars and restaurants within a highly walkable center-city area. It’s urban and diverse, and yet since its cultural prominence isn’t as off the charts as say, Chicago, remains surprisingly affordable.
With Panic fans' insatiable hunger for more music, propensity to travel, and perpetual drive to keep the party going before and after the show, it is an environment tailor-made for us. It’s no hassle. It’s good vibes. And that’s exactly what these investors decided to double down on.
To draw out-of-towners, they knew they had to provide an experience that, on top all-else, was welcoming, friendly and customer-first.
Panic was one of the test cases for this model back in 2006. With general admission seating and really pleasant setting, fostering a reason to congregate early, it seemed to play right into their hands. Sit with your friends! Hang out in line! (We’ll even look the other way if you choose to enjoy a beverage while you wait). Keep prices low and wait times short.
Hold the whole party in a room where everybody feels a part of the action -- where there’s really not a bad seat in the house.
And it worked, and worked particularly well for Panic going on tend years.
This year, to hold up their end of the bargain, Panic charged through a first set on Friday that was noticeably short, but not without highlights, especially during a middle chunk which featured “Goodpeople” and a slick transition between “Little Lilly” and “Shut Up & Drive”.
But the second set is where the true action took place.
I’m a Panic fan but can also be a fierce critic. Faults I find are largely with the consistency of the material – there are some tunes that just reach higher highs than others. Among those that always deliver: “Diner”, “Papa’s Home” & “Driving Song”, so it was a flat-out jaw-dropper to see them sequenced all in a row in the heart of the set, especially after the first two songs seemed perfunctory.
Follow that with a particularly adventurous “Ride Me High”, which found the band breaking it down and letting the excited crowd sing chorus after anthemic chorus, as the band simmered almost all the way down to silence, and the tale of the second set, and this first of three shows was set.
Friday at The Riverside also gives a chance to consider Jimmy Herring. His fretwork in “Up All Night”, basically changing the entire nature of the tune. A guitar solo that teeters between the simple song structure and an torrent of complex phrasings and runs. I understand folks that are less than enthusiastic about Panic, but if you can’t get behind what Jimmy does night in and night out, perhaps improvisational music just isn't for you.
But deep thoughts gave way to an alternative way of consuming this music Saturday, as this Chicagoan anticipated Game 6 of the NLCS. After going down 2 games to 1 in the series, the Cubs appeared to be charging back, and we had a full day to contemplate the possibility of the first National League Championship for Chicago since 1945. Oh, and there’s a rock and roll concert going on, too.
In an ordinary town and all other things considered, this might have been an issue. But The Riverside's liberal re-entry policy, a bar literally next door, and what seemed like half the Panic fans all geared up in Cubbie Blue, seemed to invite the potential of great things from both the band and the team.
Our crew lined up early to secure our preferred spot in the venue and spent a good 90 minutes chilling anxiously at our seats before game time.
At about 7:00 we simply grabbed a hand stamp, walked 20 feet to the bar next door, pulled up a stool, had the bartender fix a whiskey, and watched that game from the first pitch right up until first set started.
And man, did those first three innings set the mood. With Cubs bringing the bats and dominating on defense, imagine the feeling of walking into a venue just as “Pigeons” started cooking, your team up 3-0 at home on the cusp of history. Did I mention that the whiskey was going down real easy, too?
It was all set up for a party.
Curiosity (and the drinks) got the best of me during “Tall Boy”, so I combined a bathroom break with a pop on over to the bar, just in time to see Anthony Rizzo dig out a low pitch for a fifth inning solo blast, putting the Cubs up 5-0. Stuck around just long enough to get a tip-of-the-cap from a Dodger’s fan, and headed back in to Panic to spread the news, enjoy a pair of The Band covers and a set capping “Henry Parsons” that seemed to hold explosive commentary within its execution and lyrics (“What is everybody gonna say? What is everybody gonna do?”) – believe in curses or not, things were going down tonight.
And with Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks making quick work (he and Cubs relievers ended up facing the minimum over 27) the Panic spirit and baseball timing spirits had converged so that the band would be on it’s break when history was made.
The mass spilled back out of their seats during the setbreak. Like a show, the baseball was tense, dramatic, and fortunes change quickly. Even being up by five runs -- juiced up from a set of Panic and another to come – everything was amplified. So many people converging over their love of multiple things.
When the final out was recorded, it was bliss on top of bliss. A stranger may have kissed me. We had a second set to partake in.
Back in the venue, there were high fives and hugs – even more than usual. My analytical self from Friday had been bested – when things are going this good, does it even matter what they play or how they play it?
Now I’m one who will quickly dismiss talk that the band is speaking though it's song choices, but now here I was making hay from it. “Bears Gone Fishing”? Cubs. A well placed “Rebirtha”? Cubs. “Gonna take you to a town / Where real life's a game / Baseball is really real / At night all the spirits lighten up / As the heroes take the hill". Close that set out with “Space Wrangler”, an almost guarantee to get a Saturday night crowd to get whipped up as much as possible. SKOAL!
Sunday found me on the way back to Chicago, but Adam stuck around for round three.
The story, which was only developing in Milwaukee, but played out perfectly over the remaining five shows of the tour was Black Sabbath.
The band chose a tune by the seminal British hard rock band to feature in their encore each night. The takes got increasingly rarer by the night. With the Friday’s “Fairies Wear Boots”, yielding “Sweet Leaf” on Saturday. By Sunday, they treated the throng to “Children of the Grave”, the first in 606 shows.
You don’t leave Milwaukee without a little something special. Whether it be something to think about, a rapturous, leave everything good time, or an flat out gift from the band.
Everything is set up for your pleasure. It’s up to you to help fill in the blanks.
Setlists (via everydaycompanion.com)
10/21/16 The Riverside Theater, Milwaukee, WI
1: One Arm Steve, Who Do You Belong To?, Goodpeople, Little Lilly > Shut Up And Drive, Holden Oversoul, Weak Brain, Narrow Mind, Street Dogs For Breakfast, Porch Song
2: Tail Dragger > Ribs And Whiskey, Diner, Papa's Home > Driving Song > Ride Me High > Driving Song > St. Louis, Up All Night, You Got Yours > Climb To Safety
E: Worry, Fairies Wear Boots
10/22/16 The Riverside Theater, Milwaukee, WI
1: Pigeons, Cotton Was King, It Ain't No Use, Tall Boy, Gradle, Ophelia > The Shape I'm In, 1 x 1, Henry Parsons Died
2: Sell Sell, Thought Sausage, Radio Child, All Time Low, Blight > Bear's Gone Fishin' > Drums > Second Skin > Rebirtha > Space Wrangler
E: Me And The Devil Blues, Sweet Leaf
10/23/16 The Riverside Theater, Milwaukee, WI
1: Send Your Mind, The Last Straw > Christmas Katie > Saint Ex, Disco > Greta > Stop-Go, Goin' Out West > Blackout Blues
2: Can't Get High, Junior, Don't Be Denied, Surprise Valley > Rock, Bust It Big > Drums > Cease Fire, Blue Indian, North
E: Ain't Life Grand, Children of the Grave
LISTEN (via panicstream.com)