By John Schulze Special to Published Oct 21, 2011 at 3:12 PM

Few bands qualify as legends in the industry, but after 25 years Widespread Panic has earned the title in every sense of the word. Playing their last tour for the foreseeable future as they go on an indefinite hiatus, The Riverside Theater played host last night to the band and their fans for the first concert of a three night run, and things couldn't have started out any better. Tickets for the show tonight have been sold out for weeks, and Saturday is now sold out as well. I expect a lot of fans walking around outside the venue the next two days holding a finger in the air hoping for a miracle ticket to catch the show.

Shortly after 8 p.m. last night the band graced the stage, and was welcomed warmly by a full house of devoted fans. The Athens, GA unit started the evening off with a simple tweet from their twitter account that said "Milwaukee, Let's get this fire started", and shortly after that busted out "From The Cradle" to get the ball rolling.

The short but powerful song loosened up the crowd for two sets of music, each about an hour and a half long. What really turned up the heat was what came next, a sizzling rendition of the classic "Bowlegged Woman" that lived up to it's reputation as a crowd pleaser.

Other notable highlights from the first set included "Little Lilly" which got the crowd dancing, "Up All Night", one of my personal favorites which was delivered with soul and a proper dose of remorse, and "Stop-Go" which featured some of the finest bass work by Dave Schools that I've heard this tour.

Set two found the band properly warmed up, and they started things off with the classic "Disco", an instrumental piece that gets heavy and funky, and it did a great job of showcasing JoJo Hermann on keys, allowing him to shine in the spotlight. Up next was "Rebirtha", another old school tune that slowed things down just a touch. Guitarist and vocalist John Bell's gritty and textured voice is unmistakable when you hear it. Bell conveys a deep range of tone and emotion, and is such a comforting tool in Panic's arsenal onstage, as was the case Thursday night.

The "Chilly Water > Saint Ex > Chilly Water" Sandwich was the perfect place for guitarist Jimmy Herring to stretch his fingers and bend the minds of every Spreadhead in attendance. Fans threw water into the air in celebration of the song, and by the end I wasn't soaked, but I wasn't dry either. 

Of course, it wouldn't be a Panic show without "Drums", featuring drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz. They led the crowd through a fierce and inspired percussive experience that built up momentum for the rest of the second set.

And then Panic whipped out "Machine". I don't have enough kind things to say about this song or the rendition we were treated to. It was down and dirty in every good sense of the terms. It was truly a highlight of the second set, and a song I had hoped to hear before Panic goes on hiatus. Go buy the show at Panic's website and hear it for yourself.

The encore started out with "Old Joe", and John Bell switched to his acoustic guitar. The mood turned somewhat reflective and emotional. As it would turn out, things didn't slow down for long, as JoJo then took us on a journey through "Blackout Blues", and things quickly began to sizzle once again onstage. 

What happened next is a concert experience I doubt I'll ever forget. Panic played what I think is perhaps the best version of "Dear Mr. Fantasy" that I've ever heard, and I've heard The Band play it when they opened up for The Grateful Dead. Every member onstage was in perfect sync with each other, the mix coming through the PA was perfect, the crowd was connected to the band onstage. It all blended into a perfect alchemy of sites and sounds. It was truly sublime.

Widespread Panic plays again tonight and tomorrow at The Riverside Theater.