The colossal titans of jam rock n’ roll known as Widespread Panic rang in the New Year at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia on Tuesday for a home-state crowd. The band was birthed in Athens—about an hour down the road—so these Fox Theatre runs always feel like the band’s backyard.
WWE legend Ric Flair, a.k.a “The Nature Boy,” was in the house to introduce Widespread Panic on this special evening. It is well known that Duane Trucks—as well as Col. Bruce Hampton—were pro wrestling enthusiasts. The entire first set was performed as a tribute to Vic Chesnutt, honoring the 10th anniversary of the WSP friend and musical collaborator’s passing. John Bell remained seated throughout the first set.
For the first time ever, Widespread played brute.‘s “Good Morning Mr. Hard On” before moving on to a more familiar “Blight” led by Dave Schools. Both songs appear on brute.’s Nine High a Pallet and were performed with the help of the album’s engineer, John Keane, on pedal steel. Keane, of John Keane Studios, has been a friend, record producer, and sound engineer for both Widespread Panic and Vic Chesnutt (and brute., the short-lived project featuring Chesnutt and members of Panic), and even appeared on the music of many of their albums’ tracks.
Leafing through Chesnutt’s familiar catalog with both John Keane and JB brandishing acoustic guitars, Panic plucked the slow progression of “Degenerate” for only the 15th time ever. The tune first appeared on Vic Chesnutt’s 1996 album, About to Choke. John Keane contributed his warm vocals on “Degenerate” as well as the next two songs.
Dave Schools officially welcomed Keane to the stage and revealed this Widespread Panic set to be all Vic Chesnutt songs before diving into “Morally Challenged”, another WSP and Chesnutt collaboration, from brute.’s 2002 album, Co-balt. Last night marked only the second time ever that the tune appeared on a Widespread setlist, with the debut taking place exactly 18 years prior in Atlanta for 2001’s N.Y.E. run—a gap of 1,139 shows!
A heart-wrenching version of “This Cruel Thing” followed, tearing the stout audience to emotional shreds. This Chesnutt song—which appeared on WSP’s 2010 album, Dirty Side Down—was played for only the 6th time ever with the last time being in early 2016. John Keane returned to his pedal steel to run through the hard-hitting combination “Protein Drink / Sewing Machine” before finishing the set with a poignant cover of “Expiration Day”. “Protein Drink / Sewing Machine” are tracks from brute.’s 1995 album, Nine High a Pallet; “Expiration Day” comes off brute.’s 2002 album, Co-balt.
John Bell thanked John Keane for sitting in through the first set and expressed his love for Vic Chesnutt and Michael Houser before walking off the stage for a short break. Keane was far from done, however, and would return in each of the following sets, as well as the encore.
Not wasting any time, Widespread Panic reignited the audience’s excitement with a scorching “Disco”. The beloved instrumental sizzled behind Jimmy Herring’s electrically charged guitar riffs. Back into their original repertoire, a psychedelic “Pigeons” took flight around the city before Schools grounded the rhythm with the bouncing beat of “Little Lily”.
An improvised transitional jam bled into the instrumental “Party at Your Mama’s House” before Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down” followed after a slight break in the seemingly endless flow of music. Schools and JB knocked this blues standard outta the park as JB’s dirty vocals and slide guitar matched Schools’ thundering, descending bass notes.
After a minute to allow the band and the audience to catch their breath, a glorious “Holden Oversoul”, off WSP’s 1988 studio debut, Space Wrangler, “danced in, did a few tricks, and danced out again.” Jimmy Herring was the embodiment of a thunderstorm as lightning bolts electrically discharged from his guitar rig into the venue’s atmosphere.
After one last brief pause, Widespread Panic covered Murray McLaughlan’s rippin’ “Honky Red” before starting to transition from “Red” to “Blue” to “Black.” John Keane and his pedal steel returned to the stage to improvise a funky transitional jam that eventually cascaded into a surreal “Blue Indian”. To cap off the technical last set of 2019, JoJo Hermann‘s’s piano and vocals led the band—without John Keane—through an appropriately intoxicating rendition of “Blackout Blues” before stepping offstage once more.
As midnight neared, the members of Widespread Panic returned to the stage as their tour manager, Steve Lopez, made an appreciative toast to Ric Flair, The Fox Theatre, and the fans themselves before leading the exhilarated audience in a countdown to 2020.
When the celebratory ruckus settled down and the balloons and confetti had fallen, Widespread Panic—with John Keane back on acoustic guitar—kicked off the new year with a cover of “Turn On Your Love Light” for the first time since 2016 (a gap of 161 shows). The song was written by Joe Scott and Don Robey (a.k.a. Deadric Malone) and popularized by Bobby “Blue” Bland and, later, the Grateful Dead. JB led the euphoric celebration with his spirited vocals before Schools chiseled the fan-favorite cover of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic’s “Red Hot Mama” out of thin air.
Jimmy Herring dazzled through a scorching transition that led into J.J. Cale’s “Ride Me High”. JoJo’s peppered his clavinet throughout the song’s structure. This 25-minute “RHM > RMH” was a highlight of the night is deserving of many more relistens.
Maintaining the palpable level of excitement, Panic performed the first half of “Surprise Valley” before returning to Col. Bruce Hampton’s repertoire for a tribute to their late mentor with an exultant rendition of Skip James’s “I’m So Glad”. A short “Drums” segment allowed the percussionists Duane Trucks and Sunny Ortiz to ring in the New Year—as well as their cymbals—before returning to finish the second half of “Surprise Valley”.
Slowing it down for a moment, JB’s vocals led the band through an emotional “Gimme” honoring the memory of Michael Houser. Schools regained the reins of this hell-bound chariot and pulverized the bass-heavy rhythm for “Imitation Leather Shoes”, a tune that was inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. To conclude the third set of the night and the first set of the new year, Dave Schools remained at the helm to inject pure adrenaline in combination with Herring’s electric power into a cover of Steve Ferguson’s classic “Flat-Foot Flewzy”.
To wrap up the three-night New Year’s Eve run at the fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta, John Bell recommended “goin’ out and makin’ some waves this year, on our first journey.” That being said, Widespread Panic played two old school classics in “Pilgrims > Porch Song” with a bridge that included, once more, a few tantalizing measures of “I Trusted You” from their Andy Kaufman NOLAween shenanigans. John Keane returned to noodle an electric guitar during “I Trusted You” and remained onstage blending his vocals with Schools and JB during “Porch Song”.
Watch a selection of fan-shot videos from the 2019 Widespread Panic New Year’s Eve show at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre below:
Widespread Panic – Ric Flair Intro – 12/31/19
[Video: Ric Flair]
Widespread Panic – “Good Morning Mr. Hard On” w/ Ric Flair Intro – 12/31/19
Widespread Panic – “Blight” – 12/31/19
[Video: Julia Scott]
Widespread Panic – “Protein Drink / Sewing Machine” – 12/31/19
[Video: Patricia Hatcher]
Widespread Panic w/ John Keane – “Turn On Your Love Light” – 12/31/19
Widespread Panic – Balloon Drop – 12/31/19
[Video: Patricia Hatcher]
The next dates on the horizon for Widespread Panic are the four blissful days at the Hard Rock Hotel in Riviera Maya, Mexico (January 24th–27th) followed by a historic five-night run at The Beacon Theatre in New York City (February 27th–March 2nd) and a three-night run at The Chicago Theatre (April 2nd–4th). Happy New Years to all; stay safe, until we meet again.
As always, you can stream full audio of the show via PanicStream.
Setlist: Widespread Panic | Fox Theatre | Atlanta, GA | 12/31/19
Set One: Good Morning Mr. Hard On*, Blight*, Degenerate**, Morally Challenged**, This Cruel Thing**, Protein Drink* / Sewing Machine*, Expiration Day (49 mins)
Set Two: Disco, Pigeons, Little Lilly > Party At Your Mama’s House, Stop Breakin’ Down Blues, Holden Oversoul, Honky Red > Jam* > Blue Indian* > Blackout Blues (88 mins)
Set Three: Turn On Your Love Light**, Red Hot Mama > Ride Me High > Surprise Valley > I’m So Glad > Drums > Surprise Valley, Gimme, Imitation Leather Shoes > Flat Foot Flewzy (75 mins)
Encore: Pilgrims > I Trusted You*** tease > Porch Song*** (17 mins)
* w/ John Keane on pedal steel
** w/ JB on acoustic guitar; John Keane on acoustic guitar & vocals
*** w/ John Keane on electric guitar & vocals
– Band intro by Ric Flair ‘The Nature Boy’
– JB seated first set
– ‘Good Morning Mr. Hard On’ (brute.) FTP as Widespread Panic
– ‘Morally Challenged’ LTP 12/31/01 Atlanta (1,139 shows)
– ‘This Cruel Thing’ LTP 2/10/16 Athens (182 shows)
– ‘Turn On Your Love Light’ LTP 4/25/16 Knoxville (161 shows)