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Steve Thompson: Guest opinion

Steve Thompson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

The heady smell of patchouli oil wafting in with the scents of baked goods outside of Paradise Bakery can mean only one thing: Widespread Panic finally has arrived in Aspen.

Town will be flooded with Panic fans this weekend. As someone who once spent an entire summer in college following the band around the country, I can testify to the power and draw that this weekend’s sold-out concerts at Belly Up will spark around the country.

Tickets for the three all-acoustic sets sold out in minutes. People spent the night in line, braving freezing temperatures in thermal underwear to pay $350 for a single show. At press time, there were still some tickets available through stubhub.com for the very affordable price of what a round-trip ticket to Thailand costs. These are the band’s last official shows this year. The venue is small, intimate and will be absolutely packed. Since some of you might not know what to expect with the sudden influx of unshaven faces in town this weekend, I thought I might provide a quick tutorial of the band and their followers.

Widespread Panic is a jam band in the vein of the Grateful Dead or Phish. They have been on tour since the Industrial Revolution and their fans would follow them doggedly into an active volcano. Founded in Athens, Ga., Widespread Panic has grown from playing Southern frat houses to selling out 10,000-plus arenas. Their audience is a demographer’s nightmare: At a Panic show you are just as likely to be offered Ecstasy by an Ole Miss debutante as you are to engage in a hula-hooping contest with a woman who looks like an extra in the movie “Braveheart.”

Widespread Panic continues to create hit albums, and its following seems to get younger and stronger every year. A semester following Panic is now a prerequisite to graduating from CU-Boulder. Johnny McGuire’s will be out of food by early Friday evening, giant car pickle included.

But Widespread Panic’s appeal goes far beyond typical jam band stereotypes – it’s not all bongs and fifth-year seniors. Don’t be surprised to find some soccer-mom-driven minivans sporting the “WSP” bumper sticker on the streets of Aspen this weekend. No doubt former Wall Street occupiers will be jamming out tonight next to current 1 percenters.

One cannot discuss Widespread Panic without mentioning the hallmark of any Panic show: the noodle dance. Everyone at these concerts does it, consciously or not. It is perhaps the jam band’s most pervasive piece of iconography. This dance is difficult to describe, although one might have witnessed it in a Woodstock documentary. Noodling lacks all rhythm, poise and savvy. Basically, you just sort of go limp and gyrate up and down, like one of those inflatable air-dancers outside of a used car dealership. It is just as unattractive for girls as it is for guys: One size fits none.

I doubt noodling can even be classified as truly “dancing.” It’s like some sort of weird form of artistic expression; only when taken in collectively, it makes one wonder how people in other parts of the world would ever be intimidated by Americans.

While I no longer hold out any hope this Presidents Day weekend of somehow procuring a ticket a la “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” I am excited for the people watching. Say what you will about the red eyes, spacey countenance and irony of a dude with dreadlocks and Jesus sandals driving a Mercedes (see: “Trustafarian”), there are few people on our planet who know how to have a better time than Spreadheads.

One of Widespread Panic’s most famous song titles has become a mantra of sorts for those who follow them: “Ain’t Life Grand.” I just hope those at the concert can remember it. See you at New York Pizza at 1 a.m.


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