Widespread Panic. The dirty south. 3 nights at the 2,000 person capacity House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach, SC. Less than 6 hours from the band’s birthplace in Athens, Ga. You think these shows were any good? As a west coaster, I didn’t think Panic even played venues this small in the south anymore. But thankfully, for two of the three nights (it was off to a good friend’s wedding for the third), I was able to bear witness to some of the hottest shows I’ve seen in recent memory.

Arriving in Myrtle Beach was quite the change of scenery from a snowy Lake Tahoe. The sun was shining and the weather was sweet. We figured rolling to the show a little early was a wise idea and it was a good thing we packed a few extra road sodas, as the line to get in was ridiculous. People literally stretched half-way around the building and even though we were a good 45 minutes early before the first notes of “Love Tractor,” we still had to listen to half the song from outside.

Once inside, the sheer intimacy of the venue hit like a freight train. People were literally dancing on top of each other, and there was barely a place you could grab a spot before someone else came through making that spot just a little bit tighter than it was a second ago. Good timing, as “Love Tractor” quickly faded into one of the better segues of night 1: “Chilly Water> B of D> Chilly Water.” When Panic throws a combo like that at the very beginning of a three night run, the bar is immediately set rather high. A quick break followed the end of “Chilly” and the rest of the just over an hour set ran smooth. “Crazy” let everyone catch their breath, follwed by a well-played “Rock,” always a fan favorite.” Rock” then bled into a sweet sandwich of “Papa’s Home>Drumz>Walkin>Papa’s Home>Action Man.” A strong first set for sure and although a bit short, the energy inside the House of Blues was high.

Taking a breather during set break allowed me to get a look at this truly unique venue. Distinctive artwork filled just about every space. High above the stage there’s a mural that reads “Unity in Diversity” while several symbols stretch away from its frame. Other pieces of art spoke of liberty and justice, taking care of the swamplands, and similar worthy messages. The House of Blues in Myrtle Beach is really a gem.

Only two breaks were taken by the band during the second set, which stretched for almost two full hours. It started off mellow though; not bad by any means, as “From the Cradle” came first and went right into the classic “Space Wrangler.” Always a welcome song at any Panic show, this version just didn’t have the juice it sometimes can. It wasn’t that it was boring, it just didn’t bring the heat. However, when Dave Schools dropped the first notes to “Bowlegged Woman” that certainly did. Now “Bowlegged” is definitely a fan favorite, but I’ve never seen a crowd get on it like it did this evening. People just keyed up and let loose. The band was noticeably feeling it as well. Maybe that’s why “Cissy Strut” got dropped in the sandwich before Panic ended the song.

“Jack” was up next, and then came the always rowdy “Machine>Barstools and Dreamers.” I love it when Panic does these two together particularly because Schools typically drops some that southern space funk into “Machine.” After the second and final pause for the set, the cylinders were warm, and we got an always welcome “Ain’t Life Grand,” which carried into the Jerry Joseph jam “North.” “North” brought the energy of the room up, as usual, and it never really dissipated until the set was over. The “Surprise Valley” that followed jumped all over the place and included a melting pot of sounds. My setlist read: “Jam>Drumz>Drumz and Bass>Jam” and by the time everyone came back to the stage to finish “Surprise Valley” I was pretty stoked. What a sick night to open the run I thought. That is, until I heard Todd Nance hit his trademark hit-hat cymbal a few times to bring the band into “Arleen.” People were jumping up and down, beers were spilled high and low, and I thought the House of Blues was about to become the House of Rubble. And even after the madness that ensued, we still got “I’m not Alone” to close the set. An “Up all Night” encore then followed and led into “Knockin’ Around the Zoo,” which I had heard a few tapers calling out earlier in the night, and was a fitting way to end such a rocking Thursday show.

Night two. More madness. Even though we showed up even earlier this night, the line to get in was slow and ferocious. “Better Off” and “Holden Oversoul” were both taken in while outside. Not the ideal way to start the evening’s festivities, but the “Henry Parsons>Pigeons” made up for it in no time. Two songs most showgoers will hear within their first few Panic shows, but after all these years they’re just as fun to hear now as they were then. “Flicker>Blue Indian” was okay. Nothing that stood out, good tunes, but after “Pigeons,” the rest of the set, while well played, just kinda rolled on through. I will say, however, that “Tall Boy” did bring some of those dancing shoes back to life, and maybe it was because most of the beers being served were in the 20oz+ range, but the line “sippin’ on a tall boy” did bring some smiles and cheers from one end of the venue to the other. “Tallboy led into “Wonderin>Ribs and Whiskey> Climb to Safety” to end the set. Solid in in all, but the hope was for set two to bring it all together, which it certainly did and then some.

Things kicked off with a well played “Proving Ground” that showcased a nice jam, while keyboardist JoJo Hermann and guitarist Jimmy Herring seemed to shake loose. Then Herring was given room to shred on an epic “Maggot Brain, ” with Panic front man John Bell showing his appreciation. From here the band went back into “Proving Ground” before Sonny Ortiz started tapping his tiny little sideway bongos and Todd Nance started building a drum beat of his own, as the set up jam for “Fishwater” came into full spectrum. A textbook “Drumz” flowed through the middle of “Fishwater,” shaking the walls of the House of Blues from top to bottom, as the band started its next segue into one of their most coveted covers. Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” was a welcome tune for many as a just about everyone in the house started belting out the lyrics in unison with JB. And there was no letdown from here as “Low Spark” went right into “Tie Your Shoes>Drumz>Drumz and Bass>Tie Your Shoes” and then back into “Low Spark.” It was quite a run, and did I forget to mention the “Shakedown Street” jam Schools played during the Drumz and Bass Jam?

Things could’ve easily ended here, but Panic wasn’t done yet. With a chance to take it down a notch, or maybe mix things up with a not-so-epic tune, Panic decided to set JoJo loose, coupling this with Jimmy’s ear-bursting notes on “Airplane.” Ever since the group brought this Mikey Houser tune back into its repertoire, the fans seemed to have embraced Herring’s take on the song. Or maybe it’s not the song as much as the “Take Off Jam” that’s really become a Herring bust-out where he and JoJo lay down the textured sound that defines Panic at its best. Over yet? No way. Our fallen comrade Vic Chesnutt’s “Protein Drink/Sewing Machine” brought the set to a close. Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul” was the lone encore this evening, and nothing more was needed.

What a ride. A night packed with fan favorites, played well, to an intimate crowd of rocking people stoked as could be to witness Widespread Panic let loose on another Friday night in the south.