Widespread Panic made its long-awaited return to New England this week with two shows at Boston’s Orpheum Theater, and treated a small audience to a radio performance of songs including two selections off its just-released disc Ball.

On April 14th, the day before Ball dropped, the band stopped by WXRV-FM’s Haverhill, Massachusetts studios to play a short acoustic set of songs. Those of us lucky enough to be in attendance saw a laid-back four song set sweetened by the radio station’s crew presenting singer/rhythm guitarist John "JB" Bell with a birthday cake.

As we waited for the broadcast to start, the band welcomed us into the small room while new lead guitarist George McConnell quietly played an instrumental version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

By Chris Proposki
For this performance, each band member played a smaller version of their usual on-stage instruments: JoJo Herman only had one keyboard, Sunny Oritz had only two small bongos, and Todd Nance played a small drum.

After JB made the band introductions, the broadcast started off with a "Little Lily > Tortured Artist" tandem because "one song has no ending and the other has no beginning," bassist Dave Schools joked before the band was set to go on-air. Even though JB apologized, the band sounded great on their acoustic instruments in that little room.

By Pamela Rody
In between songs, one of the station’s DJs acted as an on-air host and asked JB questions, mostly about Ball, but also about their departed brother, guitarist Mikey Houser. It was very interesting to see and hear JB speak about his friend, looking back with both sadness and fondness. To lighten the mood, the DJ ribbed the boys about the Nelly cover they played this past Halloween. JB blamed JoJo for it, much to everyone’s amusement.

Next up was a new song called "Don’t Wanna Lose You," featuring an initial lead vocal by JoJo, which made its debut that day. The station’s staff then presented the birthday cake. After the band, crew, and audience sang "Happy Birthday" to JB, the band closed things with a rocking "Give" to end the much-too-brief set. The afternoon was a treat for the few present Widespread fans, and you couldn’t beat the intimacy of the small studio space, or the twenty person audience.

After meeting with the fans, feeding them cake, and posing for pictures, the boys boarded their bus and headed south to Boston to gear up for the next two nights.

Orpheum Theatre | Boston, MA | 4.15.03

By Mary Ruf
Panic brought unseasonably high temperatures to Boston the next day, and the first set at Boston’s venerable Orpheum Theatre reflected that. A mellow "Aunt Avis" warmed us up for an energetic "Tall Boy" to kick off the first set. A smooth reading of the Grateful Dead’s "Cream Puff War" made sure every one was loosened up for a long night of music for listening and dancing pleasure. The groove tightened for "Proving Ground" mixed in with Robert Johnson’s "Me & The Devil Blues." As it was the day Ball was released, we were treated to another debut called "Papa Johnny Road." The set came to a close with fan favorite "Space Wrangler" (George has almost got this one down) and JoJo’s "Dyin’ Man."

By Michael Weintrob
The second set had more of a flow than the first, starting off with a funky "Thought Sausage" that had McConnell and JB locked into a wonderful dual-guitar funk. This jam slowed into a marching "Traveling Light." The highlight of this set was the jam that followed the double-time outro of "Christmas Katie." Always a joy to hear, it had George just ripping it up. This led nicely into the heart of the second set: a wide-open "Rebirtha" that shook the walls of the old theater that just kept building, as the musicians and the audience combined their collective energy to create their own momentum. This is the reason why we keep coming back to these types of shows: when it works, there is nothing else quite like it.

The jam wound down slightly as the band paused for a brief drum segment (the others remained on stage) that dropped nicely into a refreshing and always welcome "Hatfield." The lead vocal duties were then yielded to George, who played us his tune "Doreatha." For many, this was their first time seeing George as a full-time member of the band and he got quite an applause. Panic then broke down into Neil Young's "Walk On," which seemed to surprise a few with its placement in the set.

Still rolling on the built-up momentum, the set concluded with "Tie Your Shoes" followed up by "Conrad." The two-song encore started with another debut off of Ball, "Counting Train Cars," followed by the old favorite, "Chilly Water."

This just left all of us thirsting for more the next night...

Orpheum Theatre | Boston, MA | 4.16.03

The second night in Boston brought progressively lower temperatures and a mellow first set back at the Orpheum. It featured the band’s usual stage set-up, except JB and George remained seated, playing acoustic guitars. Dave Schools played an upright electric bass. This arrangement was much like the "Sit & Ski" shows of 1996. Although the first set was mellow, few fans could be disappointed. The acoustic set was a pleasant and unexpected change of pace, especially after the previous night’s sonic hurricane.

"Wondering," "Fishing" (from Ball), The Band’s "Ophelia," and a gorgeous "City of Dreams" started things off nicely. The set also featured favorites such as "C. Brown" and a rare "Trouble," and closed with a great cover of Blind Faith’s "Can’t Find My Way Home." Many have commented that they like the direction the band has been taking so far this tour, mixing things up and doing the unexpected, like this acoustic set for example.

By Jackie Jasper
The second set was quite the opposite of the first. They plugged in and churned out a mammoth set of songs, kicking things off with a "Diner > Henry Parsons Died" combo. Things slowed down just a bit for the new "Tortured Artist" and "Old Neighborhood."

Then came quite possibly the highlight of the entire run: a powerful "Bear’s Gone Fishing" that built itself into a loud, colossal jam. As the energy built higher and higher, JB, George and JoJo huddled in one part of the stage, all digging in deep and securely locking themselves into a deep groove anchored by Schools. Finally, after the jam peaked, it gave way to an enjoyable drums featuring Mr. Sunny Ortiz on his various percussion instruments, later joined by Todd at his kit.

By Jeffrey Moore
As the rest of the band reconvened to the stage, the pre-drums jam picked up right where it left off, led by Schools (his playing had been rock-solid for the entire run). The relentless groove of the jam worked itself into a driving "Worry." Needing a rest, but slowing the momentum from the jam, the band once again treated us to the new "Don’t Wanna Lose You," this time much better with the electric instruments and a bigger audience. Luckily, the jam built up once again and erupted with the intro to a rollicking "Love Tractor" that had everyone rolling to end the set.

The final encore was a "Surprise Valley > No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature" duo, and just like that, as the band ended its Boston run, the cold wintery weather was back in Massachusetts.

It was such a treat to have the band up north and in town for two nights. At this time, Panic has not announced any summer shows in New England, which is too bad because they always leave us wanting more.

Chris Proposki
JamBase | Boston
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[Published on: 4/24/03]

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