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Ain’t Life Grand: Two Decades Later, Dave Schools Remembers Panic in the Streets

Photo by Dean Budnick

On April 18, 1998, an estimated 100,000 people lined the streets of Athens, Ga. to hear the southern-rock stylings of Widespread Panic. Fresh off a set of shows overseas, the band simply wanted to get back to their roots and play a concert in their hometown. According to bassist Dave Schools, the thousands upon thousands of Spreadheads were nothing short of a surprise.

Today, Panic in the Streets is treasured by audiophiles as one of the best Widespread Panic shows ever, and earmarked by rock historians as one of the most monumental public concerts on record. What started as a record release party for Light Fuse Get Away, became its own historic occasion.

Below, Schools chats about Athens past and present, the insanity surrounding the concert and, in his own words, how Widespread Panic is “the happiest we’ve been in decades.”

Where I wanted to start was talking about Athens. Can you tell me a little bit about what Athens was like around that time of Panic in the Streets, in the late ‘90s?

It’s always been very gated. It’s a tight knit little circle. It’s a small southern college town with a really, really, big eclectic music scene. Not many venues to play, especially at that time. Not many liquor licenses downtown at that time. So, it was a small circle.

You had the 40 Watt Club, you had the Caledonia Lounge. There was a bar called the Hi-Hat that had great live music. The Georgia Theater, a couple of others. You could basically trade an entry into a club for a burrito. It was that kind of scene. Everybody knew everybody and there was a lot of cross-pollination…Which is a great thing; when you’re a town full of artists that are just, simply being.

Downtown was about five blocks by three blocks, including City Hall, a large Baptist church and the police station and a bunch of cool college business; record stores etc. No national chains, I don’t even think the Starbucks had moved in downtown yet. Everything was pretty locally owned and that’s was made it so cool.

I know you’re a West Coast guy now, but have you spent any time in Athens recently? Is it kind of similar now or have things changed?

Well, things always change. I remember reading a lot of things about Athens in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I lived there, that it hadn’t fallen prey to the same sort of homogenization that a lot of southern college towns had fallen prey to. My experience, visiting there now, is that the people haven’t changed, but the town has sort of fallen prey to development. There’s a lot of student condos. A lot more national chains. A lot more hotels. I’m sure it’s good in some respects, and it’s not good in other respects.

I always like what I considered an apt description of Athens, Georgia from the ‘80s, which was, “It’s Mayberry on acid.”

I like that.

Now, I’m not sure if it’s so much “Mayberry on acid.” I know there are over fifty liquor licenses in that downtown area now. And there’s always a lot of testosterone and posturing in college towns, especially on weekends. The last time I was there, I noticed a lot of it and it was sort of a bummer. All the cool stuff that I seem to enjoy has migrated to the edge of town where the Caledonia and the 40 Watt Club are. There’s a great record store down there, a couple of great restaurants – it’s just natural. Stuff happens, evolution continues, city councils change and that’s a great segue because if you wanna talk a bit about the concert in the street, that never would have happened without Mayor Gwen O’Looney and some of the people on the city council that really believed that it would be an important step for Athens – to mount a large-scale, free music concert in the street.

Did you realize the album release show was gonna be as big as it was? When you were throwing around crowd estimates, did you ever think it was gonna be 100,000 people?

Oh lord no! No one did. There’s a book that’s about to be published by the University of Georgia Press [Widespread Panic in the Streets of Athens, Georgia], written by a guy named Gordon Lamb, who is a music writer in Athens, that is a total oral history. A “Just the facts ma’am,” kind of book. I read the book, the final draft of the book and it shocked, even me, how many hoops so many people had to jump through, politically and city council-wise and legally and culturally – socially – just to make this show happen.

It wasn’t like we just thought to ourselves “Hey let’s put on a free show!” I mean in our world, as Widespread Panic the band, that was the idea: “Hey let’s just throw a free show in our town!” But our management and the people that were in our corner and the people that seemingly were not in our corner, there was a whole lot of meeting and last second changes and all kinds of crazy stuff, including the mayor of Macon, Georgia, saying that he would be glad to put on the concert in his city, if Athens’ city council couldn’t get their act together.

I don’t think there was a huge stand against us. Although, there were some pretty ridiculous things. We had to replace all the horse feed for the mounted police force because they felt that our fans were gonna somehow get into where they stash the horse feed and dose it. [Laughter.]

But in the end, no one got hurt and it was a great time and we performed really well – It was thrilling. It was scary. It was cool. The whole town sold out of beer – beer and hot dogs. I think even the Waffle House ran out of waffle batter or something crazy like that.

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