Widespread Panic at the Fox Theater, by Joshua Huver
Widespread Panic (photo: Joshua Huver)

On Thursday and Friday, July 14 and 15, the legendary howlin’ rock and roll sounds of Southern-born groove machine Widespread Panic returned to The Fox Theater in Oakland.

Three nights in Las Vegas and one in San Diego paved their way to the Bay. From the very first note on Thursday to the final ringing chord early on Saturday morning, feverish crowds were treated to bust-outs, covers, and an overall good time — albeit not without an injection of social justice on Friday.

Thursday night’s first set was a 10-song jaunt in and out of full speed, and eager fans took every advantage of the lulls they were given to scream, whistle, and holler along. They opened with heavy guitar-driven tunes “Heroes,” “Send Your Mind,” and “Holden Oversoul” but it was not long before things settled down, if only for an abrupt moment here or there.

Widespread Panic at the Fox Theater, by Joshua Huver

The first appearance of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” in over a year was the highlight for many fans, and its sweeping transition into the jazzier, love-it-or-hate-it tune “Angels Don’t Sing The Blues” was one of the last times all weekend that Panic had any lull. An intense “Stop-Go” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” closed the set the same as it began: a full-fledged rock and roll assault.

The second set carried over the energy from the first without missing a step. Opening with “Thought Sausage” that blended into “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” Wally Ingram was welcomed onstage to aide Domingo S. Ortiz on percussion for the song’s first play since New Year’s Eve. “Slippin’” into “Travelin’ Light” was eerily sublime and punctuated with a triptych of LED visual screens featuring images of outer space events and astral bodies.

One thing that often goes underappreciated is the artistry that envelops the music. Widespread Panic is very deliberate in everything that they do, and it should come as no surprise that they are appreciators of fine art, from the naturally occurring astral bodies represented to intricate and detailed works of art they have commissioned for posters. Artists like the Bay Area’s own Chuck Sperry and Justin Helton had pieces incorporated into the LED panel displays and run through the lighting director’s own unique visualization program to further enhance the already psychedelic work.

Widespread Panic at the Fox Theater, by Joshua Huver

After the show on Thursday had properly primed Oakland for a Friday night special, spirits were high thanks in part to a successful gathering of friends and family for Sperry’s open house at his Hangar 18 art gallery in Oakland. But Oakland was also in the middle of a larger national debate, with highways being shut down by protests.

By the time Friday night rolled around, it was obvious that Thursday’s energy only multiplied, and the deep-seated compassion of Widespread Panic brought a strong theme of disillusionment and unification through an agreed disgust with war, violence, and mistreatment of each other.

The first set opened with “Wondering,” a fast-paced song of reflection that reads like it could have been written in direct response to Black Lives Matter protests: “Now I’m watching / look into my TV / and I’m thinking / wondering about the things I see.”

Widespread Panic at the Fox Theater, by Joshua Huver

Similarly, “Up All Night” and “Better Off” sees a protagonist torn between a dark reality that keeps him up, but also one who is able to take a slice of comfort from watching children be children and people who are enjoying being just themselves. Guitarist Jimmy Herring’s scorching hot lead tone and emotive voicings brought a ton of weight to even the simplest of fills and transitions without distracting from the riff driven breaks.

“Can’t get High” transitioned into the classic Buffalo Springfield anti-war tune “For What It’s Worth,” which blended into an extended drum transition to the next track, “Cease Fire.” Feeling a theme here? It’s hard not to. A crowd favorite that appears on the newest album Street Dogs, “Cease Fire” pays a stylistic nod to Santana with its super-hot scorching everything: guitar, bass, keys, and beats. The band was sincerely feeling the message they conveyed, evidenced in the smooth and loose transitions that managed to remain so tight at the same time. There was zero lull like Thursday; the band hardly stopped long enough to allow for a proper applause.

Keyboard wizard John “JoJo” Hermann took control of the next tune, “Disco,” with a huge piano intro over layers of swampy guitar and driving bass. Vocalist John “JB” Bell took the lead jam, carefully building up and around the band before a graceful crash back into JoJo’s world for “Greta,” which painfully asks the question, “Mother Nature’s come to arms / She’s in a fighting mood / Greta’s got a gun / this ain’t no flower child / how’s it gonna be?”

Widespread Panic at the Fox Theater, by Joshua Huver

Widespread Panic closed their message in the first set with a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.” During the entire first set, there was zero slacking. These guys knew exactly what they wanted to do when they hit the stage, from the point they wanted to get across to the way the songs progressed. The start/stop section of the tune is the only time the band ever stepped on any brake, and it had a resounding effect in the crowd. JB challenged Herring to an elaborate guitar battle to end the set on a high note, with bassist Dave Schools giving an immediate thumbs-up or let’s-get-out-of-here.

The second set was just as heavy musically, but the band eased up on the political tension by opting instead to break out some crowd favorites the day before the end of the tour.

Widespread Panic at The Fox Theater, -Joshua Huver

After an unusually long 45-minute set break the band returned, opening with a palate-cleansing “Glory,” which featured an incredibly dark and slow jam before Herring ripped it open from the inside, then took a hard left into the swamp rock anthem of “Good People.”

“Love Tractor” brought the crowd back into the mix with built in call-and-response sections eliciting a well-timed “Yah-hoo!” from everybody that knew to do so. JoJo appeared to have a personal vendetta against the keyboard, furiously pounding and taking the lead in the jam. The lyrically poignant and slow “Aunt Avis” came next, almost as a reminder to not forget the message of the first set largely thanks to the spectrum of emotion Herring is able to channel with his slide work.

Widespread Panic at the Fox Theater, by Joshua Huver

There was a soft stop before drummer Duane Trucks teamed with Ortiz and Schools to combine their collective funk in a sharp change of mood into “You Should Be Glad.” By the middle section, JoJo took over again, keeping the organ sounds splashy, determined to start a dance party. Herring wrestled control of the jam and took the funk to even higher levels in the transition to “Sleeping Man,” featuring Schools on lead vocals.

A special thanks for Trucks’ presence behind the kit led into a nice “B of D” before moving on to “Chilly Water” and turning the show up to 11. Beginning with an enormous foundation from Schools, as soon as the first chorus hit, fans throughout the crowd opened their water bottles and let the “cool well water” fly into an extended drum solo that saw the rest of the band walk off for the second night in a row.

Widespread Panic at the Fox Theater, by Joshua Huver

Beginning with a very roots/dub style drum beat, Ortiz shined bright and early before he and Trucks welcomed Richie “Shakin” Nagan of Parliament Funkadelic on the shaker and Nigerian percussionist Sikiru Adepoju on the talking drum. After a good 10 minutes, Trucks finally was able to show off, but was cut short when Schools got cozy in a hot salsa pocket and began experimenting with weird echo overlays on a looper.

More than 20 minutes after the “Drums” sequence, the full band returned and ripped into “Bear Gone Fishin’” and a surprisingly jazzy “Bust It Big” before finishing the set with the end of “Chilly Water,” complete with another guitar battle between Herring and JB. They returned to the stage less than three minutes after leaving and performed a two song, double cover encore of Yusuf Islam’s “Trouble” and The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” bringing the message full circle: if you try sometimes, you might just find you get what you need.