I've been up and I've been down,
But I've never been to this part of town...
Sixteen months ago, Widespread Panic played the final notes of yet another sold out New Year's bash at Atlanta's Philips Arena. The band walked off stage, and for the first time in their nearly twenty year history, there were no plans to return. It was time for a break. Time for a much needed reprise from touring life, a chance to let things slow down, and to perhaps for the first time, truly digest the loss of friend, lead guitarist, and the band's namesake, Michael "Panic" Houser.
It was not only an opportunity to get lives together, but to take a long hard look at where Widespread Panic is, what they want to become, and where they will go. Over this past year and a half things have changed; time has a way of doing that. And while we've all grown, developed, maybe even cleaned up a bit, we've never stopped thinking about Panic. Like any family member or life-long friend, we ebb and flow and our relationships change, but they never go away - that is the essence of family. And you damn well better believe that Widespread Panic is family, that's just the way it is.
Widespread Panic :: 03.26 :: Fox Theatre, GA
The questions built up like water at the dam. Can they do it? Can Panic bring the madness back? Can they find the passion? Is it possible to expose new sounds, new areas? Can they continue to explore and to grow? No one wants to walk down memory lane, and the last thing we need is nostalgia. As the questions, the anticipation, and the longing grew to inconceivable proportions, the band announced their return. And what better place to stage a comeback than the Fox Theatre in the band's backyard of Atlanta, Georgia where they first sold the venue out in 1993 and have gone on to set a record, selling out 13 consecutive shows - more than any band, ever.
THURSDAY MARCH 24th
You know the game. What song will Panic kick their new life off with? Speculation was running wild. "Chilly Water," "Space Wrangler," "Let's Get Down To Business," "Driving Song?" They all seemed like reasonable possibilities. One word I never heard was "Holden." Just think about that for a minute: Holden Oversoul! It is very telling that the first sound of Widespread Panic's return came from George McConnell's guitar. A few notes from George signaled the start of "Holden," and we were off. And the fact that "Holden" actually was the first song speaks volumes to where the world of Widespread Panic currently resides. For those who may not be aware, there is no question this was a deliberate, ballsy statement. Consider this: when I spoke to George in 2003, days after he officially took the job as Panic's new guitarist, he told me: "I spent a lot of time working up 'Jack' and, man there's a bunch of other songs. I'm still working on 'Holden' and... oh man there's so many." This was the first time "Holden" has been played without Houser, and for good reason. "Holden" is quintessential Houser. Everything about it is classic, old-school Panic. To come out with "Holden" was bold, in fact, it was borderline surreal. Over the past year I've had visions of George locked up in a room with his guitar and a bunch of soundboards, learning, re-working, finding that spot he needs to be in. From the sounds of "Holden" and from the entire weekend at the Fox, it appears George has been doing his homework.
George McConnell :: 03.26 :: Fox Theatre, GA
To be blunt, this is the whole Panic paradigm. Can George do it? Can George make the haters believe? Can George give Panic wings? While some will continue to tell you otherwise, I was blown away by George in Atlanta. For those who have been really paying attention over the past few years, you may recall what some have taken to calling "The George Lick." When things would get heated and the music would start to take on a life of its own, George would often fall back on this rapid-fire note progression that would take the wind out of the sails and place the crowd firmly on the ground when we were looking to take flight. It seemed to be almost an unconscious thing, sorta like a stutter when you are talking to that pretty girl next to you. This "George Lick" was something I feared, and while there were a few minor residual effects of it, the "Lick" never took center stage, and that made a world of difference. The patience George displayed was incredible, and by God, during "Little Lily" I started to let my thoughts wander. I began to loosen up and to let the music enter me, and by the time we were full swing into the second set monster "Wondering," I was in. I had released myself and was simply enjoying my Panic.
George McConnell :: 03.26
One doesn't think of "Wondering" as a "big song," but towards the back of this Panic classic, Dave Schools was on one knee twisting knobs and pounding his Modulus bass. Shit started getting nasty as Schools led the band into a very dark, demented, black-magic-voodoo jam, and before long "Driving Song" emerged from the chaotic otherworldly sounds. The highlight of the evening was found buried in this transition from the freak-out, back-end of "Wondering" into "Driving." These spacey, tripped out areas are the parts that Panic has been having the most difficulty with in the Post-Mikey era. But at the Fox the spaceship was defying gravity - floating and moving above the stage. Schools (who was absolutely in charge and on fire all weekend) was still in the dark netherworld as Jojo provided weird-o keywork, blipping and bleeping and swooshing over the top. Percussionist Sunny Ortiz was creating bird chirps, and JB was tinkering in the way back, complementing George and solidifying the mix. This section signaled a very important moment in the rebirth of Panic and simply cannot be overstated. Out of this alien transition we landed in "Driving," a song of significant meaning to any Panic fan. One of the special qualities of "Driving" is that it often serves as a "sandwich" with another song tucked into the "Driving" body. As would be the case on each night at the Fox, at least one brand new song would be featured, and by putting "Second Skin" in the high-profile position of the "Driving Sandwich," the band was clearly making another bold statement. Perhaps the best of the four new songs, "Second Skin" was a dark, slithering composition that put John Bell front and center. As Schools pumped the goods behind JB, and George, dare I say, delivered a lingering lead under the heart of the song, JB sang:
Dave Schools :: 03.26
This is the season
John Bell :: 03.26
These are the waking days
Tear off your wet sheets babe
Step out in the sulfur rain
Like sweat on a moving train
Shh, baby just listen
About to be born again
Could there possibly be more meaning tucked into this segment? "Driving Song," one of Widespread Panic's most classic compositions, with "about to be born again" embedded in its depths. And this is what it's all about - a "Second Skin," a time for all of us to be "born again." This ain't no re-issue, and Panic ain't gonna rest on what's already been done. JB and company are coming at you with a "Second fuckin' Skin." Get with it, or just get out of here!
By the end of Panic's first show back, it was clear we were witnessing Professional Grade Panic. Beyond the sound being tighter than expected, the band has a new light rig that screams PROFESSIONAL. It reminded me more of Radiohead than of what I remember from Panic. It was classy, crisp, and it always added to the music, never distracting or taking away. To say that Panic was triumphant in their first night back may be a slight understatement. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't doing a wee bit of comparing to when Phish came back to MSG after their hiatus. And while that was certainly an enjoyable show/run and may have contained a higher level of energy, it was obvious that the Phish band was sloppy and real loose (to put it nicely). Now I do realize this is apples and oranges, but where Phish flubbed, Panic was on the mark, taking chances but not letting it fall apart. I was beyond impressed. I had left room in my mind for a few train wrecks. I almost assumed there would be painful transitions and rough songs, and although it wasn't perfect and there was clearly room for growth, it never crashed. It never became ugly. As "Blue Indian," a somewhat lackluster "Use Me," and an incredibly appropriate "Climb To Safety" closed down the first of Panic's three comeback gigs, I couldn't have been happier. I was back in that comfort zone, that place where all my friends live and where everything makes sense for a little while. My expectations had been exceeded, and while I wasn't split open satisfied like the good ole days, it was damn fun and it felt good. It was the first night, and Widespread Panic had clearly won.