Photos © Sean O’Brien
As it has been in past years with a confluence of concerts and major sporting events, Atlanta was a beehive of activity around New Years Eve in 2018 (perhaps this year more than any year prior). The energy in the city fed into the the excitement and mood at the Fox Theatre prior to Panic’s final show of a three-night run at the historic Fox Theatre.
This year’s run was the fifth time Panic has flipped the calendar to the New Year in the grandiose 4,665 capacity venue. Performing on the same stage where the band’s friend and spiritual guide Col. Bruce Hampton played his final show in May, Panic paid homage to the modern jam scene patriarch several times throughout the night, adding a layer of poignancy to the celebratory occasion.
Always the apropos opener, the first of three sets opened up with “Let’s Get Down to Business,” a Brute (WP’s side project fronted by the late Vic Chesnutt) tune and frequent kickoff to signature Panic shows. The first set featured John Bell seated and playing an acoustic guitar, a nod to the band’s long-time tradition of playing full acoustic for set one on New Years Eve as late-comers file in and the crowd settles in for a marathon show. The first set was highlighted by a rare opening frame “Driving Song” suite with “Jamais Vu (The World Has Changed)” and the “Time Waits” making its first appearance in over three years before the set ended with the classic “Wondering.”
Despite all the nods to Col. Bruce, classic Panic fare and general New Years boisterousness, the most memorable moment of the night came between sets one and two. Over the holiday season, thousands of Panic fans secretly raised money for PanicStream founder and operator Curtis George to help him defray the site’s pricey server costs – raising $20,000 and surprising him with an oversized check at the soundboard. The band and crew were in on the surprise, cutting the setbreak music and shining a spotlight on George for the presentation. The incredible orchestrated act of kindness is a testament to the continued close-knit community surrounding Widespread Panic and a beautiful scene to behold up close from the aisle of the Fox floor.
The meat of the night’s energy and improvisation began with the band’s most cherished instrumental – blasting into a “Disco” that rocketed the energy of the room to one of the night’s extended peaks as lighting director Paul Hoffman illuminated the theatre, playing off the disco balls and filling the space with eye candy. The frenetic energy was sustained with “Fishwater,” “Tie Your Shoes” and a well-placed first rendering of “Sleepy Monkey” that momentarily/slightly cooled down the feverish pace of the set without tempering exhilaration. Capping off the relentless bombast of the second frame, “Chilly Water > Ribs and Whiskey” and the classic staple “Pigeons” rounded out a momentous 70-minute set to cap off the 2017 for Widespread Panic.
As synthetic snow fell from the rafters above (note: it was unseasonably cold enough outside for flurries this year) and manager Steve Lopez took to the stage, giving props to the rest of the crew, the courteous, deferential and hard-working staff at the Fox and the capacity crowd, before leading a countdown and PA playing of “Auld Lang Syne”. Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” played as the band took to the stage, inciting a dance party in the room as a prelude to the night’s final frame.
New Year’s formalities now clear and balloons still flying, Widespread Panic returned to with a trio of tributes to Col. Bruce. John Bell fittingly exclaimed “Happy New Dimension!” (choice of words for Bruce no doubt) before opening 2018 with Hampton’s “Basically Frightened,” a tune only performed one time prior in the same building on Valentine’s Day in 2011 with Col. Bruce singing lead. After a debut performance of Bobby Bland’s “Yield Not To Temptation,” (a staple in Col. Bruce’s live repertoire) and Cream’s “I’m So Glad” was performed, fitting on too many levels to name (it was one of the final songs Hampton performed before his passing after his final performance on the Fox Stage on May 1), as Bell howled out the lyrics:
Don’t know what to do
Tired of weeping
Tired of moaning
Tired of crying for you
I’m so glad
I’m so glad
I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m glad
Returning to their catalog after the run of covers, John Bell grabbed the mandolin and most rabid fans knew “Ain’t Life Grand” would come next before another peerless and high energy run through Panic canon faves with a relentless run through “Surprise Valley” > “Greta” > “Drums” > Surprise Valley”.
2017 was another tough year for loss in the rock and roll community and WSP paid homage to another lost legend, covering Tom Petty’s “Honey Bee,” marking the band’s second performance of the tune to follow its debut in Vegas over Halloween weekend.
The heavenly seventh set ended with familiar covers of JJ Cale’s “Travelin’ Light” and Neil Young’s “Last Dance” before a beautiful three-song encore nodded again to Vic Chesnutt “Expiration Day” and original Panic staples “Postcard” and Porch Song.”
With a lighter touring schedule focused on urban weekend runs in tried-and-true markets, it was fitting for Panic to close out their first year on the new schedule at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. This year’s run and year-capping show did not disappoint at any point and delivered a tasteful mix of tributes, well-executed originals and, most importantly, stirred up a rowdy atmosphere suitable for the special occasion.