When Widespread Panic takes the stage at the James Brown Arena Wednesday night, it’ll end a 17-year drought for the Garden City.
“They last played in Augusta October 23, 1997, at the Bell Auditorium, so it’s been damn near 17 years,” says Robert Williams, owner of Roux’s Catering and a huge fan of the jam band that originally hailed from nearby Athens. “That show had a great set list, was very well-played, and included a couple of songs that were not part of the regular rotation. They played ‘Mr. Soul’ (written by Neil Young and originally recorded by Buffalo Springfield), which I think was kind of a tip of the hat to James Brown, ‘Chunk of Coal’ (originally written and recorded by Billy Joe Shaver), an old ragtime kind of song, rarely in rotation, and ‘Ain’t No Use’ by the Meters out of New Orleans. A lot of people have covered it.”
Williams, who often arranges his travel plans to coincide with Widespread Panic tour dates, is well familiar with the band’s song rotation.
“They never play the same show twice,” he says. “They have about 90 songs in their regular rotation and won’t repeat songs for four shows. At Red Rocks last summer, they played four nights and performed 96 different songs over those four days.”
In fact, the ritual way in which Widespread chooses songs for shows has become a bit of a legend. According to numerous sources, the way it works is this: at the beginning of a tour, a member of the crew makes a list of all the songs they perform and laminates it. Then, before each show, someone takes the laminated list and marks with highlighters in three different colors the songs they performed at the previous three shows.
Before the show, the band examines the list and decides what to play during the first set. During a break, they pick the songs for the second set, then return after the second set to choose the songs for the encore.
“They’ll play two sets,” Williams explains. “The first one is usually an hour and 15 minutes. Then they take a 30-minute set break and come back for another two hours. It’s usually a two and a half to three-hour show.”
That, no matter what you may think of their music, is an impressive feat: three-hour shows from a band that has been touring almost nonstop since they formally started calling themselves Widespread Panic in 1986 is hard work. They’ve only taken a couple of hiatuses, one in 2004 and another 2012, and Williams says that, before Augusta’s 17-year dry season, the band was a big part of the music scene in the area. They played the old Post Office, as well as the Jessye Norman Amphitheatre, and even a couple of more unusual venues.
“They played the Augusta Country Club for a deb party in 1989 and they played the Augusta Princess Riverboat, which was a graduation party for Westside and Richmond Academy. I was just getting to know them then (at the riverboat show) and yelled ‘Coconut’ half the night but they never played it.”
Even if they don’t play someone’s favorite at their upcoming James Brown Arena show, Widespread makes it easy for fans to find what they’re looking for at livewidespreadpanic.com. There, they can find, order and download any of the band’s shows dating back to 2005. Williams uses the site quite a bit.
“up until the mid-‘90s they would let you plug into their soundboard (to record shows), but now they just upload it to the cloud. They do a live audio stream of every show they play and source it through their website,” he says. “The audio quality is exceptional and technology is amazing. You can buy a copy of the show within a couple of days.”
In fact, you can preorder the Augusta show now.
Williams is looking forward to the upcoming show and says it may be a better one because it’s during the week rather than on a weekend.
“They are playing a three-day run staring this week (they play in Raleigh June 5-6 and in Chattanooga June 7 before coming to Augusta on the 11th) so, by the time they get here, they will have the rust off and be well-rested,” he said. “In an off-market shows in the mid-week, you may catch some new material. Sometimes when they play big arenas and big locations, they can be a little safer with the set list. Sometimes those mid-week shows are the ones people talk most about.”
And it’s the organic nature of the band’s song selection most people talk about.
“What are they going to do the next night is sort of the fun of Widespread Panic,” Williams says.
James Brown Arena
Wednesday, June 11
Doors, 6 p.m.; show, 7 p.m.