Words by: Wesley Hodges | Images by: Michael Saba
Widespread Panic :: 12.30.09 & 12.31.09 :: Philips Arena :: Atlanta, GA
Death. Taxes. Widespread Panic on New Year's Eve in Atlanta. Some things are certain in life. Maybe it's because I've spent the greater part of my existence as a Georgia resident, but order felt restored in the universe when John Bell and company returned to Atlanta to kick off their eighth New Year's Eve run of this decade at Philips Arena after spending last year's NYE in Denver. In what has been quite the anomaly from past years, the Atlanta shows were Panic's first two of the year in Georgia and the Home Team seemed to play with added gusto on this run. Both performances came off as well-rehearsed, inspired and a great deal of fun. When you live in the Southeast, it's easy to take Panic for granted because one could usually stay local and still catch a half dozen shows a year or more. The fact that these were the first shows in Georgia all year only added to the intense anticipation.
| Widespread Panic :: 12.31 :: Georgia|
In what has been a roller coaster decade that saw the death of lead guitarist Michael Houser in 2002, an explosion in popularity aided by the American festival industry (headlining events like Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits certainly helped) and the addition of the mega-talented Jimmy Herring, Panic has pushed onward and upward releasing four studio albums and gaining a whole new generation of fans along the way. Through it all, Panic has continued to blaze a trail nationwide, crafting unique concert experiences and original setlists while delivering their muscular brand of psychedelic Southern rock.
The first night was undersold (with a black curtain blocking off access to the seats in 300s level) but luckily it didn't affect the band's performance. Multi-instrumentalist Randall Bramblett and the wonderful horn section The MegaBlasters added extra muscle to choice covers like "Chest Fever" and the Traffic classic "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys." This lineup of Panic often peaks when Dave Schools and Jimmy Herring play the game of musical one-upmanship as they did on "Stop-Go." This dub heavy turn on the early period favorite featured Schools as a one man wrecking crew and is worthy of a second (or first) listen.
The chills-inducing first notes of "Aunt Avis" invoked the largest crowd response and was fitting as the first of several tributes to Vic Chesnutt during the two-night run. Chesnutt died from an apparent suicide on Christmas and there is no doubt the recent loss weighed heavily on the band during the shows. John Keane's pedal steel whined to the heavens as JB sang "Help me remember how to be good/ How to continue when I feel I really shouldn't" as the crowd quickly grew quiet and the lighters went up. "Angels on High" and "Weight of the World" closed down the first of five sets and also featured the very professional MegaBlasters accompaniment. There's just something about horns and New Year's Eve that seems to class up the joint.
| Mike Mills w/ WSP :: 12.31 :: Georgia|
What came next was one of the strongest sets of music I've witnessed in eight years of seeing the band play. Of all the bust-out deep track random covers, perhaps there is none more bizarre than Warren Zevon's "Excitable Boy," a song about a deranged usher biting murderer. With R.E.M.'s Mike Mills on lead vocals and Randall Bramblett playing the sax parts from the original version, this track soared and kept fans on their toes. Staple songs like "Ain't Life Grand" and "Blackout Blues" are generally hard to get overly excited about, having seen them countless times, but the added guest horns and quality of musicianship on display on this night made these extra special.
Bramblett's sax solo on "Low Spark" was a full-on jaw dropper and his proficiency for the tune shouldn't come as a surprise, as Bramblett was a touring member of Traffic at one point. Keyboardist John "Jojo" Hermann's soulful organ accented Bramblett beautifully making this one of the better tunes of the run. Yonrico Scott joined the action for "Fishwater" and piqued my interest in the usually bathroom break worthy "Drums" segment. An impressive bass-heavy jam out of "Drums" led back towards "Fishwater" before the Zevon cover and a great reading of R.E.M.'s "Don't Go Back to Rockville" with Mills.
"Blue Indian" was oddly placed to open the encore but John Keane's presence again catapulted this version above any I'd heard before. Finally, a take on The Band's "Chest Fever" rounded out one of the more enjoyable Panic shows I've ever had the pleasure of attending.
12/30/09 Philips Arena, Atlanta, GA (Setlist courtesy of EverydayCompanion.com)
Set I: Solid Rock > Stop-Go > Radio Child, Aunt Avis*, Climb To Safety*, C. Brown*, Rebirtha > Angels on High**, Weight Of The World**
Set II: Ain't Life Grand*, Time Zones*, This Part Of Town*, Blackout Blues***, Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys**** > Fishwater***** > Drums****** > Fishwater******, On Your Way Down******* > You Should Be Glad*******, Excitable Boy********, (Don't Go Back To) Rockville********, Imitation Leather Shoes
E: Blue Indian*******, Chest Fever*******
* with John Keane on pedal steel
** with The MegaBlasters on horns
*** with John Keane on pedal steel, Randall Bramblett on saxophone
**** with Randall Bramblett on saxophone
***** with Randall Bramblett on saxophone, Yonrico Scott on percussion
****** with Yonrico Scott on percussion
******* with John Keane on pedal steel, The MegaBlasters on horns
******** with Mike Mills on vocals, Randall Bramblett on saxophone
[Only '(Don't Go Back To) Rockville', Only 'Excitable Boy'; Soundcheck: 'Expiration Day', 'Goin' Out West', 'Cream Puff War']
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