Article by Erika Rasmussen
Once upon a time, there was a band. They’d been on the scene for a while already and had acquired two drummers, three guitarists, and a keyboardist. Their traveling circus of musicians, roadies, and “family” was as big as their sound. It all got to be too much. “That’s it,” they said. “We’re gonna take a break.” And take a break, they did. The Grateful Dead went on a 20-month hiatus in 1974 (save a few unannounced shows and the recording of “Blues for Allah” at Bobby’s place). When the Dead came back out, it was to a select list of intimate venues, attended by a diehard, knowledgeable crowd. The smaller venues were chosen to decrease the overwhelming crowd size, but the change in locations also prompted a change in the outrageous amounts of sound equipment they could lug around with them. This was a welcome relief, even to a band that cared about their audience’s sound experience like no other performers at the time. They also scaled down their sound. Instead of going “way out there”, they relied more on subtle chord changes and lyrics to tell their tale. To the fan who was truly there for the music, and not the “scene” that it had become, this was nirvana.
When jamband alumni Widespread Panic announced in 2016 that they were going to take their own breather from their backbreaking tour schedule, there was quite the wailing and gnashing of teeth. “What will we do? Who will we listen to? Where will I throw my overpriced concert water?!?” Since that announcement, we’ve all hunkered down. Tour plans are agonized and strategized over like the defense of Dragonstone (#teamdaenerys). The limited amount of funds and time off from work that one has is sparingly spread out over the tours with the utmost of care. We get to share our love of Panic and “family” in intimate venues like Atlanta’s Fox Theatre and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. We’re even selling out the amphitheater in St. Augustine on a three-night run after a hurricane in oppressive heat! “They say it takes hardship, boy; To let you love the rest. Sometimes underneath the load, is where I show my best.” We’re showing up and appreciating the magic of Widespread Panic all over again. And it is glorious.
Just like the veteran Deadheads of 1976, we’re all slinging grilled cheeses or t-shirts or even websites on the side, whatever side hustle is necessary to get back on tour. People are bringing their kids, or even their parents, to their first show before there are no more chances to experience the first show. Those who are “chasing” a song seem to be pursuing it with a little more fervor and celebrating the catch with that much more elation and gratitude. When the band recently went into “Four-Cornered Room” in Florida, countless people skipped past me cheering “I’ve been chasing this song for ____ years!” I was lucky enough to have caught it last year in Norfolk (man, what a heater!), but you can feel the palpable relief as many people realized the tune wouldn’t elude them forever. I, myself, have made sacrifices and called in favors in order to check off some bucket-list venues.
One of those venues I’m most looking forward to finally taking in is the Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee, WI. The historic Riverside Theater is Panic’s fourth-most often played venue (behind Uptown Lounge, Red Rocks, and Georgia Theater). I find this especially interesting for a jamband that found its roots in the South. While Panic typically hugs the two coasts for their tours (East Coast due its Georgia roots and the West Coast due to Dave Schools relocating to CA), the Riverside Theater is always a beacon in the Midwest for jam fans. The Riverside Theater remains standing on shaky ground. In an era of giant, modern, multipurpose venues, the Riverside is the only remaining Milwaukee structure designed by Kirchoff & Rose, vaudeville-theater specialists of the ’20s. Panic has almost fallen apart twice due to the tragic loss of the lead guitarist and a change in one of their percussionists. The old Riverside has almost been lost twice: once to fire and once to a date with the wrecking ball. Much like the millionaire owner of the theater, who at that time turned things around and renovated the theater, Panic has reinvented itself. While we miss Todd Nance as a part of the band, the energy that Duane Trucks has recently brought to drumming has reinvigorated not only their sound but the energy of their famous “Drums” interludes. Just like in the days of Billy and Mickey taking the Dead into “Drums > Space,” Sunny and Duane transport us to another space and time when we can focus on their percussionist arts. Mickey Hart always says, “I’m in the transportation business…” It all makes sense if you let yourself go and become a part of the music. And that’s always a little easier in a venue as storied, famous, and beautiful as the Riverside.
In the words of “Cream Puff War,” a song played by both bands, “Wait a minute, watch what you’re doin’ with your time…” Plan your travel smartly, and find a way to take in the glory that is Widespread Panic in Milwaukee. Go rub the Bronze Fonz statue, drink some beer, and enjoy some midwestern hospitality. “All the endless ruins of the past must stay behind…”