1. I chose the middle night of Widespread Panic’s three-show Vegas run largely for its opening act, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, a live powerhouse in my previous live encounters. And once again, Denson and his five bandmates dazzled, working through a funky, jazzy, soulful hour-long set as the Joint slowly filled for the headliners. Later, as expected, Denson returned with his saxophone and flute to guest on Panic’s final three pre-encore numbers, “Angels on High,” “Let’s Get the Show on the Road” and “Red Hot Mama.”
2. One of my favorite aspects to a jam-band concert—particularly one involving a beloved veteran group like the Grateful Dead back in the day, Phish or Widespread Panic—is the crowd’s anticipation of and reaction to the setlist as it evolves. Though Thursday’s selections weren’t especially surprising on paper, all of them having been played by the band this year (and most of them already this summer), fans responded enthusiastically to a show packed with old favorites like “Space Wrangler,” “Driving Song” and “Pilgrims.” All told, the band played more than 70 different songs over its three-night run, including one, Friday opener “It’s All Over Now,” that hadn’t made an appearance in 827 shows, according to web source Everydaycompanion.com .
3. For me, parts of Thursday night dragged on, and not because I don’t enjoy long jams. My issue with the show—and with Widespread Panic in general these days—is that guitarist Jimmy Herring's long solos almost never excite me. He’s a talented musician, there’s no question, and his sense of melody is solid enough. But where jam guitarists like Trey Anastasio and Warren Haynes possess the ability to wow, a creativity that can be startlingly original at times, Herring seems all meat and potatoes, dutifully filling measures without saying much of anything. My favorite Panic moments come when the sextet moves as a unit, Dave Schools’ nimble bass at its center, and Herring’s playing fits better for me in that context.
4. Highlights from Thursday’s gaming-themed set break playlist: The Grateful Dead’s “Loser” paired with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Even the Losers.” Also entertaining, watching the Panic faithful dance with wild abandon to Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts.”
5. And speaking of the set break, having additional jam-oriented acts DJ Logic and Spafford booked for nearby Vinyl seemed like a genius move by Hard Rock Hotel programmers, but leaving that venue silent as hundreds of fans poured out of the Joint between sets felt like a wasted opportunity to keep the party going. So did closing Pink Taco’s doors at 11 p.m. with so many hungry mouths headed that way.