By Michael Lester
PHILADELHIA — Regulars at Widespread Panic concerts, some who have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of shows, arrive at a show with high hopes for rarely played songs, preferably an obscure cover or two.
It’s always a bonus for the fans, known as Spreadheads, when a guest musician or two appears on stage to sit in, preferably with horns in hand, just to keep this enduring band’s performances relevant and fresh as it approaches nearly 30 years since its formation.
The boys from Athens, Ga., delivered Saturday night ? and then some ? during their first-ever appearance at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia, a 2-hour, 45-minute set that was heavy on Louisiana-influenced blues and unusually void of a set break.
For their final song preceding the encore, the band was joined by members of opening act Galactic, a New Orleans-based horn-heavy funk band, for an extended 10-minute jam of Bill Withers’ 1972 hit “Use Me,” a song that’s been a part of the Panic live repertoire for years.
Anchoring “Use Me” was the stunningly soulful voice of 25-year-old Maggie Koerner, a singer-songwriter who also hails from Louisiana (Watch “Use Me” here: http://bit.ly/1oyg7UE).
Koerner’s vocals easily upstaged those of John Bell, the beloved founding Panic member, frontman and rhythm guitarist whose voice is sometimes affectionately jeered for off-key, creaky moments.
Deservedly, Koerner, touring most of the summer with Galactic, drew perhaps the loudest applause of the night.
Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman and trombonist Corey Henry provided the night’s hoped-for horn section on “Use Me,” while bandmate Rich Vogel shared keyboard duties on the cover alongside Panic’s JoJo Hermann.
Panic’s 20-song set also included “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” a smoky blues number by ZZ Top, which will visit the 2014 Bloomsburg Fair.
“Jesus” followed the Yardbirds’ “Drinking Muddy Water,” a similarly bluesy, guitar-heavy song Panic hadn’t introduced into its concert catalog until last Halloween. Saturday’s version marked only the fifth time the band had played “Muddy Water.”
As their bandmates left the stage, Panic drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Sonny Ortiz followed “Jesus” with the help of Galactic’s Stanton Moore for a drum exhibition.
Panic members gradually reemerged for “Fixin’ to Die,” a delta blues tune delivered from obscurity by Bob Dylan after he recorded it on his debut album.
Following “Fixin,’” Dave Schools’ familiar and hypnotically heavy bass line introduced Panic staple “Chilly Water,” which lasted nearly 13 minutes. The band then returned to the night’s New Orleans blues storyline, covering Dr. John’s “Familiar Reality.” Panic had not introduced that cover into their rotation until this year during an early May tribute show to the legendary New Orleans blues singer-songwriter.
Like many jam bands, Panic, which will enter its 30th year in 2016, honors the Grateful Dead’s time-honored tradition of never playing the same show twice. (I’m living proof you can see the band as many as 31 times and not even scratch the surface of their vast live catalog of several hundred originals and covers. Despite that extensive resume, I have yet to once see them perform one my favorite originals, “Stop-Go.”) Panic generally sticks to a three-show rule for setlists: The band refuses to repeat a song over a span of three concerts.
The band has routinely headlined three-night sold-out runs at Red Rocks in Colorado in recent years. So it was perhaps surprising they have never performed at the Mann.
Known for its Southern brand of jam music with its most loyal fans below the Mason-Dixon Line, Panic has a history of playing much smaller Philly-area venues like the Tower Theater in Upper Darby and the Electric Factory. But they usually don’t even sell out those rooms.
Similarly, the Mann was clearly not sold out for Panic’s performance. But we wouldn’t be surprised to see the band return.