Rock group Widespread Panic returns to Riverside Theater, drawing thousands to Milwaukee

Widespread Panic fans gather at a street party outside the Riverside Theater prior to the first of the group's four shows here this weekend.

Last updated on October 25th, 2021 at 02:27 pm

Rock music fans from across the country have descended upon downtown Milwaukee for Widespread Panic’s weekend run at the Riverside Theater.

The band is back performing in Milwaukee for its 15th year, with four sold-out shows Thursday through Sunday. Drawing nearly 10,000 people from 48 states, Washington D.C. and Canada, the event marks the biggest run of sold out shows the Pabst Theater Group has hosted since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a news release. 

Since Widespread Panic’s first Milwaukee show in 2006, the Riverside Theater has been an annual stop for the band, which has headlined major music festivals like Bonaroo and Lollapalooza and sold out iconic venues like Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. After 30-plus years together, the group no longer tours every major U.S. city, but rather selects a handful of destinations and plays for a few nights.

“They perform in cities where they feel like they would like to play and, more importantly, they’re playing in cities where they feel like their fans would want to come and enjoy the show,” said Gary Witt, co-owner and CEO of the Pabst Theater Group. “It’s important because if they’re not going to tour and play in Kansas City, Idaho and Montana, then they have to choose to play in places where their fans want to go.”

Widespread Panic’s 2021/22 tour kicks off in Milwaukee before heading to New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, New York City, Riviera Maya, and Napa. Witt said having Milwaukee and the Riverside theater on that list year after year has risen the city’s profile among the industry.

“Because of the status these shows have taken, Milwaukee is now included in the pantheon of venues like Red Rocks, the legendary Beacon Theater, and the Austin City Limits amphitheater,” he said. “It’s super beneficial for us.”

Keeping big-name bands like Widespread Panic coming back to the Riverside 15 years later relies heavily on the in-house experience performers have at the venue — from backstage amenities to a comprehensive food and beverage program led by executive chef Kevin Sloan.

The fan experience matters just as much. During the pandemic, Pabst Theater Group invested $800,000 to renovate and expand the bathrooms on the basement level of the Riverside. Those upgrades generated lots of positive feedback from Widespread Panic fans after Thursday night’s show, said Witt. The Riverside’s wide selection of beer at reasonable prices is also “meaningful” to both performers and fans, especially those looking for a taste of Brew City.

Before heading into the Widespread Panic shows, fans can enjoy food from nearby Doc’s Smokehouse, drinks and live music at a street party outside of the Riverside, between Wisconsin and Plankinton Avenues. Pabst has hosted these pre-show events for the past three or four WP runs here as a way of introducing out-of-town fans to more of Milwaukee.

“You want to find ways to give them something to do beyond only the show — you want the fullness of the experience overall,” said Witt.

That’s good news for surrounding businesses like hotels, bars and restaurants, who stand to benefit from the influx of visitors during WP’s run — especially amid ongoing pandemic recovery. Pabst Theater Group estimates the four-night run will generate $8.6 million in economic impact to the city. 

Witt likens the impact of WP’s shows – and other major concert events – to that of a major convention and says they should be treated as opportunities to bring more people here.

“We should embrace these possibilities to turn people into fanatics who love our city and will go out and tell other people about it,” he said.

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Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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