A solemn silence overtook the anxiously awaiting audience in Atlanta’s sold-out Fox Theater last night. The show-time was pushed back to 9 E.S.T. with a three-set jubilee on the table. The six musicians of Widespread Panic walked leisurely to their positions on stage with John Bell electing to take a seat for the first acoustic set. 

Kicking off the final show of the year, the boys dove into a politically charged cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”.  The song was one of the first covers the band played together during their first live show at the A-frame in their humble Athens beginnings. It has only been performed two dozen times in Widespread Panic’s illustrious thirty-year career, the last being performed earlier this year during the first night of the St. Panics Day run outside of Washington D.C.

A raucous “Ain’t Life Grand” allowed JoJo Hermann room to roam on his piano as John Bell provided powerful vocals from his seat. The true force of Jimmy Herring’s guitar was teased before simmering down for a heartfelt rendition of Jorma Kaukonen’s “Genesis.” John Bell was tugging on heartstrings as well as the guitar with the honest lyrics including the appropriate opening verse, “The time has come for us to pause, and think of living as it was. Into the future we must cross. I’d like to go with you.”

Dave Schools remained top dog with a haunting version of “Blight” which he co-wrote with Vic Chestnutt. Schools, always slightly mischievous with cutting intelligence, sang the lead vocals with a well-placed jab at the Commander-in-Chief, “I heard some words of wisdom, the other day.  They went in one ear and out of the other one” and added, “They go around the oval office, and around and around. Walls keep people IN too, ya know.”

John Bell orchestrated a spiritually lifting blessing with the original masterpiece “May Your Glass Be Filled” which hasn’t been performed since New Year’s Eve in Nashville two years ago. John Bell blessing the audience with the words, “May your family share laughter; your songs always play.  May your wishes come true; even those left unprayed.” To close the first acoustic set, the Panics executed a stirring tribute to late Widespread Panic guitarist and co-founder, Michael Houser, with “Space Wrangler.” John Bell ad-libbed a rare ending to the second verse “Pass the jail without tears” he added, “his daddy’s in there”. The song progressed building up spectacularly with Jimmy Herring picking up speed and intensity until the first set break allowed the audience refreshment time to find “the place that pours the coldest beer”

The boys wasted no time upon return by absolutely demolishing a sizzlin’ “Thought Sausage” with the acoustic instruments laid by the wayside.  Jimmy Herring and Schools meant business with Herring distorted guitar licks creating echoes within the fabrics of the universe.  John Bell remained focused and delivered his wicked gumbo raps with hungry precision. The bass kept thumpin’ with the help of Sonny Ortiz’s whirlwind percussion hands and JoJo’s synthesizer to nail J.J. Cale’s “Travellin’ Light” before returning to the band’s repertoire with a shining “Pleas.” John Bell, sounding like a desperate man with nothing left to lose, implored the crowd in sincere solidarity to “Don’t let it get too sad / Don’t let it get too dark”. 

The White Wizard, Jimmy Herring, dispersed holy light from his guitar until the bottom dropped out for a slick and funky jam with portions of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” interwoven through the middle section.  It was reminiscent of a year prior at the same venue when the band performed the infamous “Gentleman’s Night” of all male titled and themed songs. 

As Jimmy Herring’s guitar licks faded out, JoJo’s keys introduced the “Good People” a tribute to the community of dedicated fans that travel to the ends of the planet to hear this band. It goes deeper than dedication though; it is about the spirit that connects this brotherhood of outcasts, vagrants, and everyday common-men and women, and gently reminds them to be the goodpeople that lift each other up, shedding our bad intentions in order to make this world–or even this day–a brighter, more humane place to live and share. 

The Panics kept the pedal to the floor with a fistful-of-dynamite cover of Murray McLauchlan’s “Honky Red”. John Bell, always treading a fine line on the lunatic fringe, delved deeper into madness as Herring electrified with his lightning guitar licks and Schools threatened to crush his bass with the force of his mighty bear paws. John Bell unified the audience in spirited comradery with a heart-warming rendition of “I’m Not Alone” battling the commonly felt feelings of isolation with the lyrics “I feel a little bit easier… Knowing that you’re all here!”

Jimmy Herring navigated the band through the wild ride that is “Saint Ex”.  The song’s build-up and break down of tempo and intensity was based on the incredible story of a German pilot shooting down his favorite author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry– of The Little Prince notoriety–in World War II.  To close the epic second set, the Panics drove home a bouncing “Holden Oversoul” cut from their debut album Space Wrangler.

Dave Schools after asking the audience to be his date introduced his wingman Steve Lopez, Widespread’s touring manager, who thanked the audience and community and insisted on making 2019 the year of love. The two led the countdown bidding adieu to the 2018 and welcoming in 2019 with confetti, balloons, and explosive chaos that subsided into the traditional “Auld Lang Syne” over the house PA.    

The band emerged from the shadows of the side stage to celebrate the New Year with a special treat that hasn’t been played since the Red Rocks run of 2002. “The Waker” was written by the late space wrangler and co-founder of the band, Mikey Houser, for his newborn son, Waker Houser. After his death, the upbeat song was put on the shelf to never be played again. Or so we thought… the boys jumped right in, blowing the dust off the tune, the disbelief of all in attendance, and gave the goodpeople their ticket value with that bustout alone. Initially, most people were too stunned by the miracle taking place to react, but eventually tears flowed and people rejoiced at the incredible bust-out and celebrated the New Year as well as the soulful life that was Mikey Houser.   It was Jimmy Herring’s first time playing the tune, and he aced it. 

“The Waker”

[Videos: MrTopDogger]

As most of the audience tried to collect themselves and their shattered world-views, the Panics transitioned into another beloved classic “Arleen” with its distinctive bass lines and unpredictable vocal raps that was modified heavily from Winston Riley’s reggae version. John Bell and Dave Schools went berserk, opting for a very untraditional opening, with playful back and forth banter and shouts. The boys were having fun messing around, and it soon became clear that they had no intention of getting to the first verse.  The bond between these musical masterminds was truly felt by their improvised jamming as if they were sitting in a nondescript garage back in 1986. 

John Bell commanded “Stop!” as the music faded out. The drummers, Sonny and Duane Trucks, led the masters of their craft back into the fluidity of sound with a raucous “Pigeons”, complete with psychedelic breakdowns, soaring guitar riffs, and unearthly shrieks. Jojo’s piano introduced a transforming “Greta.” During this song, JoJo transformed the audience into “a pack of rabid dogs” with his unique brand of magic as the band and crowd howled at the unseen moon. 

Jimmy Herring kept the tempo in overdrive for an explosive jam that culminated with a mystical “Zambi rap” in tribute to their late mentor Col. Bruce Hampton who died as the final encore of his own 70th birthday celebration at the same Theater in May 2017. The tribute continued into Skip James’ 1931 cover of “I’m So Glad” that was made famous by Cream but a staple in Col. Bruce Hampton’s repertoire.  Jimmy Herring, as a past bandmate of the Colonel’s, dazzled through the familiar jam.  Hometown performers, Kevin Scott and Nick Johnson, joined the band to add backup vocals and shakers to the homogenous blend of sound. This was only the fourth time that Widespread covered this song. (For more information on Colonel Bruce Hampton’s impact on the band, see Horde Tour and Aquarium Rescue Unit, his roots run deep as cosmic mentor and spiritual advisor).

Returning to the band’s original classics, Dave Schools’ lively bass revealed a suggestive “Little Lilly” before rapping a few more “Arleen” measures in another leisurely transitional jam. The boys knocked a serene “Pilgrims” out of the park before shocking the audience once more with another rarity.  Widespread Panic performed The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” once before during the legendary Halloween run in 2000, more commonly referred to as Nolaween.   To finish the third and final set, the first set of 2019, the band segued into an uproarious “Chilly Water” that threatened to blow the roof off the prestigious theater. With the audience soaked from thrown cups of water, the band shuffled offstage to regroup before the encores.

To end the last show of this unbelievable three-night run, Widespread Panic crushed an emotionally charged version of The Bloodkin’s “End of the Show” with John Bell sporting his “tiny guitar” (mandolin).  Keeping it in the musical family, the Panics ended the show with a traditional combination with another legendary bust-out hidden in the middle.  The last jam began with Vic Chestnutt’s “Protein Drink” but instead of seguing into “Sewing Machine” as custom predicts, the boys instead played their late friend, Vic Chestnutt’s “Bastards in Bubbles” for the first time ever, from the co-written album Nine High a Pallet

“Bastards in Bubbles”

[Video: MrTopDogger]

Many songs that the band covers come from this time when Panic joined forces with Vic Chestnutt to form brute including “Blight”, “Protein / Sewing”, “Let’s Get Down to Business”, “Expiration Date”, and (recently) “Puppy Sleeps”. However, this is the first time that Widespread has ever played “Bastards in Bubbles” live. As is the style of many of Vic Chestnutt’s tunes, the song begins cautiously and slowly before breaking down the gates of hell on a fiendishly wild romp around Satan’s yard.  The intensity seeped into a bass-heavy “Sewing Machine” closing the night and leaving no man standing except for the small, minority of souls that still stand transfixed, shocked to paralysis after hearing the return of “The Waker”. 

It may be coincidence, but the Fox Theater doesn’t have another show until January  3rd, giving them 72 hours to fix whatever was destroyed in the mayhem that is sure to follow a three-night stay by the Kings of Jam Rock N’ Roll, Widespread Panic. The band never ceases to amaze, and continues to find new ways to shock and awe even their most longtime supporters.  This show was one for the ages, and fights for absolute greatness among the endless Pantheon of great Panic shows. 

The next stop for the band (and the horde of goodpeople) is Riviera Maya, Mexico for Panic en la Playa Ocho. Don’t forget your sunscreen and two-dollar bills, cause it’s gonna be hot on and off the stage. Until next time, goodpeople, work hard, take care of your brothers and sisters, and have a great year ahead.

Setlist: Widespread Panic |Fox Theatre | Atlanta, GA | 12/31/18

Set 1: For What It’s Worth, Ain’t Life Grand, Genesis, Blight, May Your Glass Be Filled, Space Wrangler (44 mins) 

Set 2: Thought Sausage, Travelin’ Light, Pleas > Good People, Honky Red, I’m Not Alone, Saint Ex, Holden Oversoul (62 mins) 

Set 3: THE WAKER > Arleen, Pigeons, Greta, I’m So Glad*, Little Lilly, Pilgrims, Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress > Chilly Water (77 mins) 

Encore: End of the Show^, Protein Drink > Bastards In Bubbles > Sewing Machine (21 mins) 

Notes * w/ Kevin Scott & Nick Johnson – Backing Vocals, Shakers

^ JB on mandolin

 – 1st set with JB seated

– ‘The Waker’ LTP 6/28/2002 Red Rocks (1,083 shows); First time without Mikey

 – ‘Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress’ LTP 10/29/2000 NOLA (1,210 shows); 2nd time played

– ‘Bastards In Bubbles’ FTP (Brute) Miss you, Vic