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PHOTOS & WORDS: Widespread Panic - Royal Oak Music Theater, 11-24-2009 - words and photos by Andrew Bender

Southern jam rock legends Widespread Panic took the stage at the Royal Oak Music Theater Tuesday night and MCB's Drew Bender was there to witness the hotness.

I'd been excited to see Panic for some time, as the last time they'd come to Michigan was over the July 4th weekend in 2008 for the inaugural Rothbury music festival. But the last time they'd come to Detroit was in 2006, only a few months after lead guitarist Jimmy Herring had joined the band. And they have continued to come a long way in these past 3 years. I can hardly give an objective, unbiased review of this show, as Widespread Panic has become one of my favorite live acts in the last few years.

I left work at three o'clock on Tuesday, hoping to see them perform at the live acoustic performance at Goodnight Gracie's in Royal Oak. I'd received word of the free show from my wife who'd heard it on 93.9 the River - I was in Atlanta at the time for work. She texted me and called me almost simultaneously - so I really knew it must be important. "You'll never guess . . . Panic's playing a free acoustic set before their show on Tuesday!" and I knew that her excitement was all for me as I'd traveled several hundred miles to see them since 2006 - Chicago, Kansas, Rothbury - certainly not as far as many I knew. OVer the next couple of days, the big jam music websites picked up on it and it got announced on their news pages, "Widespread Panic to perform acoustic set." So receiving text messages, I came to find out on my way up to the ROMT that the band would only be letting in some small number of people. When I got there, there were already sixty people in line, and nobody knew who would be let in. Finally after much anticipation the first 60 or so people in line were given wristbands and told they'd be ushered back to the ROMT for a special performance. I happened to luck out with a wristband myself and got some shots of that set. When we were finally ushered in, we were disappointed to find out that it was not an acoustic performance whatsoever, but rather just a 4-song soundcheck-type performance. Now, don't get me wrong - seeing Panic with 60 other fans was amazing and I was grateful for the opportunity to see and enjoy and shoot them in that condition - four great songs, sweetly sung for a select few who got there just early enough. Check out the photos from the pre-show set below and read on for some words about the rest of the evening and photos of the main event.

The mini-set was very cool - just a few people dancing around and having a blast seeing the band. The band was bathed in blue light. Apparently, the lightboard operator was not on the job and as a photographer, I was challenged with finding interesting ways of capturing 6 musicians saturated in intense blue light. A sweet, fun, jazzy mini set that included a serene Pilgims, and an inspired Time Waits with guitarist Jimmy Herring's delicately intentional jazz licks. In between were a solid Can't Get High, and rockin Weight of the World that had the small crowd in a frenzy. After that 4-song mini-set I said goodbye to some friends and jumped in the car - I raced home to put those shots up online and get the rest of my shit together for the show. I nuked and then inhaled a frozen burrito - molten on the outside and bean-flavored slushy style on the inside (just like I like 'em). Said hi and bye to the wife and our friend and was out the door back to the venue.

Wandering around and seeing lots of old friends in the crowd, I headed up to the stage to get set up again to shoot in front of the rail. As I'd seen before, the light was bright enough for slower lenses, but was just dominated by a permeating blueness. And as a photographer, I prefer that to the redness any damn day. Opening up with From the Cradle, Panic seemed to tell the metro-Detroit crowd to ignore whatever the national media might say about Detroit as lead singer and frontman John Bell's (or JB) powerful southern, whiskey-tinged vocals summoned the crowd to life. Segueing into Old Neighborhood, Herring's slide sounded sweet as Jojo Herman's keys rang true indeed. This slid slowly into Thought Sausage, a dirty southern number with abrupt transitions and funk to the rafters.

As I slid back from the rail to stop taking photos and wandered toward the back to find some friends, the band started up in a slow funk as a friend grabbed me walking by - Picking Up the Pieces. Then, One-Arm Steve took the place by storm and shook it up a bit. A rousing cover of Neil Young's Walk On kept the pace going with bassist Dave Schools dropping huge bombs on his 6-string bass. Closing out the first set were a trippy Second Skin, funky and martial Greta and a percussive Better Off that ended the set at over 90 minutes.

Coming back for a second set, I realized that I needed to slow down a bit on the various whisky drinks that kept being handed to me as I needed to get home after the second set and do some work. But for the second set itself - well, it just kept on coming as amazing Panic song after amazing song came forth with only Angels on High being played off their last album. I remember hearing Disco > Diner and Jojo's keys on Disco and JB's vocals in Diner mixing sublimely with Makers Mark as my feet were incapable of staying put and my arms flailed about in a white boy freak out. Machine > Barstools was very nice, but the rest of the second set was just pretty incredible (and I don't get to see the band all that much). The soft gentle tones of Gimme transitioning into the heavy percussion opening beats of southern swampy Fishwater, itself moving into a massive drum solo, then drum and base waves rolled over the gyrating crowd before the rest of the band joined in for a super spacey jam of Space proportions and into the drunk and cathartic Proving Ground, into another jam and just as the crowd was drifting off into the void, the band rolled back into Fishwater. Ending the set with the Jerry Joseph cover Climb to Safety, it was certainly a huge night of Panic in Detroit - or Royal Oak in any case. The encore performance of Old Joe and Ribs and Whiskey showed that a Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, is a party night for any year.

It was truly wonderful seeing so many people last night that I've met over the last year as a photographer with Motorcityblog. I'd like to dedicate this piece to MCB Editor extraordinaire Kirk Rukenbrod - Happy Birthday Kirk!! Thanks for Everything!!!!