They were playing on a baseball diamond for a crowd of about 1,500 frat boys, sorority girls and hippies. Even with virtuoso bassist Dave Schools' right forearm in a cast, the band laid it down with swampy, soulful improv-heavy Southern rock.
For half a decade, I caught the band regularly. But, after a while, I started to lose interest. Now, it’s been five years since I’ve seen Widespread Panic live. Back then, founding member and lead guitarist Michael Houser was still living. Sadly, in 2002 he succumbed to cancer. But the band forged on for a year, adding friend and Kudzu Kings guitarist George McConnell to the lineup before taking a lengthy break from touring and recording.
Tonight the band returns from its near-two-year hiatus, opening a four-night run at Atlanta’s historic Fox Theatre, and intense vibrations surge through the hordes outside the venue. Part college-football-style tailgate party, part neo-hipster traveling circus, the pre-show parking-lot festivities are under way on Peachtree Street. Old friends slap backs and swill beers, chatting it up excitedly and placing bets on what song the band will open with, while others spark up marijuana-filled pipes and peddle leather goods and concert posters.
Obvious undercover cops donning brand-spanking-new tour shirts—and looking painfully out of place—try to bait fans with offers of ecstasy and opium. Even with their conspicuousness, it’s fish in a barrel for the Atlanta police. First, they haul off the bearded fellow parked next to me for selling beer without a license. Then they arrest two heads for selling nitrous-oxide balloons, slamming them against the Fox’s tan brick wall and slapping on the cuffs.
But the bad vibes are lost on most of the folks outside the venue. This is a celebration for many of them; the return of their favorite band. As I get in line to pick up my press passes at will call, a roar spreads like wild fire through the crowd, reaching a deafening volume. Strangely, a bunch of suits walk by, clutching their wives tightly, as if to guard them from the filthy paws of all the drunken, stoned freaks. I glance over and notice a sign:
WELCOME MORTGAGE BANKERS ASSOCIATION OF GEORGIA
God help these squeaky clean conventioneers. They hadn’t signed on for this when they booked their party.
Motorists lay on horns as concertgoers meander, oblivious, through the traffic. As I creep closer to the ticket window, the Fox security adopts Gestapo tactics to maintain order. “Up against the wall!” they scream at us. And, damn it, we listen. After all, nobody wants a boot to the skull.
After 30 minutes in line, with the show about to start, I finally arrive at the window, but there’s no one there. I wait another five minutes as the patrons grow increasingly restless. Finally, an employee moseys into view. I snatch my passes and head for the entrance. If this mess keeps up, I won’t be surprised if a riot breaks out.
On the way to my seat, I stop to grab a hot dog and a vodka tonic. While I’m handing the cashier a twenty, the band breaks into “Holden Oversoul,” a first since guitarist Houser died three years prior. These fans are conscious of stats like this—most could probably tell you how many days, hours and minutes it’s been since the song was last played.
The place erupts. It’s as wild as it was outside, though it’s a far-happier madness in the theatre. The aisles are flooded with screaming, dancing Panic aficionados, cutting loose with a steady stream of rebel yells. They’re a friendly bunch, though—introducing themselves and holding their butane-lighter flames up so I can see what I’m scribbling in my notebook.
After a few minutes the song segues into the Southern-disco-ska of “Love Tractor.” The band is on fire—pushing the music to majestic peaks and deep valleys. It dawns on me that no amount of bootlegs can touch seeing these guys live. The energy is mind-boggling.
The band follows with “Thin Air (Smells Like Mississippi)” from their latest album, Ball. The girl behind me starts tapping on my shoulders, playing along with the band’s percussionist Domingo Ortiz. I just go with it. During the chorus of “Hatfield” everyone—and I mean everyone—throws their hands in the air, shouting the lyrics. When the crowd rattles your eardrums as much as the band, you know they’re into it.
Guitarist McConnell and Bassist Schools tear it up, soloing simultaneously underneath a top-notch light show while Pianist John Herman busts the keys honky-tonk style. Schools grins ear-to-ear—you can tell they’ve missed playing together.
Frontman John Bell’s voice is high, gritty, twisted, emotive—as if creeping on the breeze from some ghastly New Orleans boneyard. Gregg Allman in Robert Plant’s register. The Widespread singer has put on some pounds since I last saw him perform (at a breast cancer benefit in Athens) but he hasn’t lost a step.
The lights burst yellow as McConnell kicks into the riff of “One Arm Steve.” All the respect in the world to former guitarist Michael Houser for developing such a distinct, instantly identifiable sound (and for his simple, affecting songwriting), but McConnell’s skills take this band to levels previously unattainable.
Panic cools it down on “Fishing,” which begins with eerie, slow percussion and haunting organ that sound hooked straight from one of Dr. John’s late-’60s voodoo-night-tripper albums. Slowly churning pinwheels of light illuminate the band. They medley into “Little Lily.” But after a while, the song meanders into no man’s land. Finally, it pulls together for a haphazard ending.
From underneath the chaos arises a primal, driving snare beat. It’s “Rock” from the band’s self-titled 1991 album. Though lyrically simple, it’s theme is certainly something to ponder. The song is sung from the point-of-view of an ancient rock lying in a pool at the bottom of a river, as it slowly erodes in the current. “There’s a man on the bank 10,000 years my younger,” Bell groans, as Schools drops super-funky bass bombs. “… Well the fish gonna make it home in a couple of days / the bird’s gonna make it home before his grip turns dry / Everybody’s moving but me / I’m gonna make it home piece by piece.” Not your typical “She loves you yeah yeah” rock song.
The first set wraps up with fan favorite “Ain’t Life Grand,” a celebration of the seemingly mundane daily activities comprising the majority of our lives. Houser’s lyrics find beauty in trips to the liquor store, sunny days, people watching, grocery shopping and kissing your wife. Bell carries the torch of his departed brother as the band blasts out a sloppy-but-energetic rendition.
Though it began in the mid-’80s as a cover band, playing Athens’ Uptown Lounge and whatever frat house would hire them, and though many of their live chestnuts were actually penned by brilliant but little-known Stonesy rockers, Bloodkin, Panic has long-since relied on a core of well-crafted original compositions.
I join my friend Matt in the front row of the balcony for the second set, and the band kicks things off with the blessedly funky “Old Neighborhood.” Schools slaps, pops and spits out an extended, light-speed run of 16th notes. With everyone dancing and jumping up and down, it feels like the balcony—furiously shaking—could collapse at any second. I’ve been upstairs in this venue many times for concerts and have felt some movement, but this is frightening.
“Papa Johnny Road,” is bolstered by McConnell’s blistering slide playing. But it’s “Wondering”—with drummer Todd Nance hammering home the accents—that’s the pinnacle of the entire show. Strips of multi-colored light flashing behind the players, they build to a monstrous crescendo, swept along by the sonic wave they’ve created. McConnell pulls out a string of Chuck Berry double-stops and the band falls in, the music exploding in a sweat-soaked rush of pandemonium. I’ve decided. I’m officially back into jambands.
Spacey exploration follows. The spotlight illuminates Schools as he conjures unearthly sounds from his six-string bass. The music turns dark and dissonant as if beamed from a desolate moon crater. TV static and time warps. Tape-loops, ice-crystal arpeggios. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Radar blips and songs of the humpback whale.
When the sound momentarily fades, the band slips ever-so-quietly into “Driving Song.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t gel into the breezy, feel-good anthem it usually is. The stacks of speakers suddenly seem overloaded. Still, the crowd dances along. The band is struggling, searching. It eventually stumbles into the live debut a new John Bell tune. The music continues to flounder. But that’s how it is when you’re constantly taking risks live. It’s exciting, and sometimes the payoff is immense, but often you fall flat on your face.
The band reaches out, desperately trying to grab hold of some elusive shred of mojo. Schools wades through the droning soup, trying to drop anchor. McConnell follows suit with some pronounced slide licks. Then they hone in on Herman’s keyboard-slathering and pick up the pace. No one—not even the band—knows what’s coming next. They ease back into a reprise of “Driving Song,” and this time with the appropriate dose of rough-hewn magic.
“Greta,” follows (from 1997’s Bombs & Butterflies) and once again, the temporarily dormant balcony starts bumping like a small earthquake. This whole set, I’ve been holding on to the railing in front of me for dear life. If even one of the rowdy revelers behind me in the jam-packed aisle stumbles, I’m going over the balcony’s edge, 30 feet straight down into the seats and almost certain death. “Greta’s got a gun,” the band sings in unison, tension mounting, “this ain’t no flower child!”
They segue into “Fishwater,” and take it for a ride, momentarily approaching Herbie Hancock-Headhunters territory before Schools rattles out some thick, chunky bass chords. A brief drum solo breaks out, showcasing percussionist Ortiz’s impressive chops, then the band joins back in to close the show with an extended rock ’n’ roll ending. They leave the stage, waving as their fans cheer.
After a few dark minutes, the band saunters back out under the rising black lights. “Blue Indian,” one of the Widespread’s finest songs, leads off a triple encore. It’s a lonesome, foreboding, Mississippi River-steamboat style romp. Bell conjures his best Billie Holliday phrasing, and McConnell feels through a solo resembling Doors-guitarist Robbie Krieger’s work on “People Are Strange.” As the song's final notes fade, Schools launches into a hard-grooving, left-field cover of songwriter Bill Withers’ soul/funk classic “Use Me Up.”
Capping off nearly three hours of music, the crowd-pleasing Jerry Joseph cover “Climb To Safety” sails in on the wings of Herman’s keyboard riffing. The song’s chorus, “It’s no fun to die alone,” is a battle cry for these nearly partied-out Panic fanatics.
After the show, I file out onto Peachtree Street, much the way I came in—flanked by throngs of triumphantly screaming fans letting loose ear-piercing shrieks of joy. For me, this is it. But with a weekend of Fox shows left, for them, it’s one down, three to go.