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']
Continue reading for coverage of New Year's Eve...
12/31/09 - New Year's Eve
A slow-moving line at the CNN Center entrance to the arena prevented hordes of fans from seeing much of the acoustic set and we didn't make it down to the floor until the fourth song. I've always enjoyed Panic's acoustic sounds as much as the hard rock bombshells because it gives John Bell the rare opportunity to show his talents on the six-string and take a few more leads than usual. The set was heavy with mediocre throwaways from the band's last few albums until busting out "Vacation" for only the second time in 2009. As was the case the previous night, perhaps the largest crowd response came as the band played Brute's (which features Panic backing Vic Chesnutt) "Expiration Day," a song Panic and Chesnutt recorded on their 2002 album Cobalt. Standing much closer, it was easy to watch the band's reactions and Herring looked on the verge of tears while paying tribute to their fallen friend. An excellent and surprising acoustic rendition of "Holden Oversoul" and a ho-hum "Porch Song" rounded out the hour long acoustic offering.
| Widespread Panic :: 12.31 :: Georgia|
Although the third set is hard to beat on paper, in this writer's opinion, the second set was when the playing reached its apex. The "Space Wrangler" > "Impossible" > "Jack" > "Action Man" run was a remarkable display of a jam band doing what they do best, building on a musical idea and crafting something that hasn't been created before, i.e.: jamming. It seems like jamming isn't as fashionable as it was at the beginning of the decade, when the jam world arguably reached a generational peak, so it was great to see Panic still willing to challenge itself by wandering out of the comfort zone into wholly unfamiliar musical territories. As it was the night before in the second set, the band hit a clear stride and clicked on all cylinders midway through set number two. Dave Schools' playing has elevated since Herring joined the band and their sounds complement each other in a very exquisite fashion. While Schools sounds like a metal guitarist playing bass in a jam band, Herring is a technically gifted shredder with a penchant for playing the laaarge power riffs. Combine the two and you've got yourself a nice product. Dave Schools took the bull by the horns and turned "Impossible" into a wickedly dark and heavy metal nightmare after Herring absolutely destroyed "Space Wrangler" while still wearing the starry-eyed look of a man genuinely grateful to be a part of the Widespread Panic family.
JB invited The MegaBlasters back for "Her Dance Needs No Body," a song from 2008's Free Somehow. This is one of the stronger tracks on the record and came out of the smoker well with the added brass. It wouldn't be New Year's Eve without the appearance of the band's instant classic "Up All Night" as the green and red lights flashed while Bell sang "The best thing about New Year's is the Christmas lights...." As they did on night one, The MegaBlasters provided backing for a Band cover. This time it was for "Ophelia," a crowd favorite and staple cover in the rotation. Schools again dominated "Pigeons" and took the six-string for a few quick sprints playing the bridge at blinding speeds with great precision. With twenty minutes left in the decade, the band exited the stage for another short break.
| Widespread Panic :: 12.31 :: Georgia|
Mr. Schools came out alone and led the countdown towards a new decade and as the clock struck zero confetti blasted from cannons onstage and rained down from the rafters. He said something about socks and then immediately started playing a robust and familiar bass line as Sunny, Todd Nance, and JoJo joined in the fun walking back onstage. When Herring started his riff (one that would make several re-appearances throughout the marathon set) I started getting the "Could it be?" feeling that Panic was about to cover a Michael Jackson song to start the new year. And that's exactly what they did.
JB's year got off to a bit of a shaky start as a fan in a really interesting jacket stumbled onstage, grabbed JB's microphone and put his arm around him before being run off by security. Momentarily rattled by the incident, Bell quickly re-grouped and 2010 was off and running in a big way as he summoned his inner MJ on the classic "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." Some of the best covers are when a band does a complete 180 genre wise and puts their own signature sound on it. The funny thing is the boys actually pulled it off and pulled it off quite well, and it's worth a listen for those not in attendance.
The horns stayed on for "Tall Boy" and "Arleen" with an extended tease of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust." There was nary a dull moment during the monstrous third set. It was also the lengthiest New Year's set I've ever witnessed, as the band plugged on past 2:00 a.m. Midway through the set I left the jam-packed floor to watch from further back and could appreciate the impressive light display (most notable during "Chilly Water"). Widespread Panic has never been known for their visual display, but the expanded rig for the Philip's show provided some pretty fantastic eye candy.
| Jojo Hermann :: 12.31 :: Georgia|
The third set was pretty much a greatest hits Panic set with some very rare covers including Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" and a first-ever work out on Van Morrison's "Moondance." Schools got weird on "Bust It Big" with some deliciously gooey bass pedaling and the cool, cool water flew as it always does during "Chilly Water." Neither of these two songs were a surprise but there are certain tunes that the band just kind of has to play on New Year's and "Chilly" is one of them. A debut performance of Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight" opened the encore and a final tribute to Chesnutt was paid as Panic closed out the festivities with the "Protein Drink/Sewing Machine" suite. I've always thought this combo was one of the best vehicles for Herring to make inspired guitar magic and it was no different on this occasion.
With another successful Philip's run under the belt, these guys show zero signs of slowing down anytime soon and if the first set of 2010 is any indication of what's to come, it'll be another prosperous and prolific decade for Widespread Panic.
12/31/09 Philips Arena, Atlanta, GA (Setlist courtesy of EverydayCompanion.com)
Set I (acoustic): Let's Get Down To Business > Wondering, Already Fried, Tortured Artist, Clinic Cynic, Crazy, Vacation, Expiration Day, Holden Oversoul, Porch Song
Set II: Little Kin, Space Wrangler, Impossible, Jack, Action Man, Her Dance Needs No Body*, Up All Night*, Ophelia*, Pigeons
Set III: Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'*, Tall Boy*, Arleen* > Surprise Valley > Drums > Surprise Valley > Driving Song > Disco > Driving Song > Rock, I Wish* > Moondance*, Bust It Big > Chilly Water > Jam > Chilly Water
E: Walking After Midnight, Protein Drink > Sewing Machine
* with The MegaBlasters on horns
[Only 'Walking After Midnight', Only 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'', Only 'Moondance'; 'Another One Bites The Dust' tease during 'Arleen'; Last 'I Wish' - 11/06/03, 412 shows]
Order the 12/30 show and 12/31 show for Download on LiveWideSpreadPanic.com.
Stream 12/30/09 and 12/31/09 on Panicstream.com.
Continue reading for more pics of Widespread Panic on NYE...
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