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Published: 2002/01/09
by Chip Schramm

Widespread Panic, Philips Arena, Atlanta, GA- 12/29-31

Widespread Panic New Year’s 2001: A Phillips Trifecta

2001 was certainly a year nobody will ever forget. It’s easy to find more bad than good in 2001, with economic hardships, terrorist disasters, and a general malaise that has permeated men and women not just in the U.S., but certainly worldwide. Sometimes music is the best salve to sooth the wounds and refill the soul for a return to happy times. Widespread Panic certainly had ambitious plans in mind when they booked an unprecedented 3-night stand at Philips Arena in Atlanta for their concerts at the end of the year.

In many ways, the band had a banner year, sharing the stage with Carlos Santana, Bruce Hornsby, and Trey Anastasio at various stops on their seasonal tours. They also returned to Jazzfest as a headliner, once again cementing their already stellar reputation in the crescent city. They played what I considered to be their best run ever at Oak Mountain Amphitheater in the sweltering August heat down in Alabama. They released a new album early in the year and unveiled even newer songs during their annual New Orleans pilgrimage in late October. Between all of their group touring, several of the band members even found time to perform with side projects and record other albums outside of the Widespread Panic fold.

The only openly negative event of the year was the cancellation of a fall European tour after the Sept. 11 attacks, due to understandable security concerns abroad. It seemed like the time was ripe for a musical climax on Marietta St., and three nights would give the band all the opportunity in the world to get the job done. Special guest rumors buzzed up and down Peachtree in the days and weeks leading up to the show. Panic Fans For Food had a charity drive with accompanying party slated for Smith’s Olde Bar on the 30th. All the parts were in place for the best 3 nights of music ever.

At this point, it’s difficult for me to give an objective review of the weekend’s music. In retrospect, the first night of the three ended up being the strongest show, drop for drop. The boys came out on Saturday and played one of the tightest, most exciting shows I’ve seen in a while. It was amazing how crisp this show was with all the rest and preparation the band got after the end of fall tour. It seemed like the setlist had been rehearsed well in advance, with smooth transitions and tight arrangements even on the parts with special guests.

They opened with Little Lilly, much the same as their "Don’t Tell The Band" album, and we were off to the races from there. Papa Legba and Thought Sausage developed nicely, as the band built up steam before a swell first set Diner. I considered the Diner to be a positive sign, since it’s such a strong song for the first set of the first night. I figured things would really lift off from there, and I was right, on Saturday for sure.

Aunt Avis was a nicely placed tune given the fury of the first set, and when John Keane came out for This Part of Town, I thought we hit paydirt. Keane’s contributions throughout Saturday night really made my weekend. He’s the band’s mentor for a reason and deserves all the respect in the world. Now that Panic only plays Atlanta once a year, Blue Indian seemed like another perfectly placed song. Warm and fuzzy, JB delivered it with heartfelt emotion that was well received by the crowd. The All Time Low and Cream Puff War closers for the first set were also superb. The band threw down so many power songs on the opening night, it almost made it harder to top themselves in the next 6 sets to follow. [note, see NYE 1998]

The rest of the 29th was highlighted by more pedal steel work from John Keane and a couple of moving tributes to the late Sir George Harrison. The crew simultaneously prepared Keane’s gear with one of Todd’s vocal mics to make me certain that they would play Down with steel guitar. When Cynic was the song of choice instead, I felt totally unworthy. The little country touch that Keane added made the song sound more like the Barbara Cue version (with Johnny Z on pedal steel) than the first few renditions Panic had played in months previous. It was a truly special moment.

The C Brown with more Keane was reminiscent of the great New Year’s show at the Fox in ’97. Right before it went into drums, Jojo threw out a few words from If I Needed Someone as a small tribute to George Harrison. Charlie Pruett from Allgood sat in with Sunny on drums, and then when Dave came out to play bass, they did an extended Here Comes The Sun instrumental jam. Before the run even started, I had my hopes pinned on hearing them play the full-blown song, but when JB walked out onstage again, it was not to be. They might have missed a golden opportunity with that one. It could have been epic, but nevermind.

The 29th would finish up with more Keane, adding pedal steel to Jojo Hermann’s particularly dirty cover of Ride Me High and a Love Tractor to continue the lusty theme through to the end of the second set. The encore was nice, with JB singing the always moving Trouble, and then back to the grit with Dave Schools belting out Flatfoot Floozie to end the evening. Trouble seemed particularly appropriate, given the events on of the latter half of 2001. I’m really glad they found a place for that one in the weekend’s rotation.

The first night had expectations set pretty high for the rest of the weekend. The energy built up on Saturday was carried successfully throughout the weekend, but it’s safe to say that it did not really peak or reach any massive climax in the nights that followed. There was just a lot of high quality playing and consistent jamming throughout. There’s no doubt that some fans had their expectations simply set too high, hoping for wild cover songs (never really a NYE tradition) or maybe more special guests, but I think the band did an admirable job. The fact that they had rehearsed long beforehand was evident, and the fact that they had no noticeably blown cues or missed lyrics all weekend was also key.

The second night started off mysteriously, with The Earth Will Swallow You as an instrumental opener. While I neither love nor hate the song, it seemed like a really odd choice to get things started. I guess they are gonna play it up more as the release of the Hanson brothers’ movie nears, but as for opener, it’s no A of D. The Machine>Barstools in mid-set was a welcome combo. It seemed like the Barstools was screaming for some sort of spontaneous JB rap or sandwich in the middle, but the spark just wasn’t there. Thus lies the main criticism from fans in general about this night and the next: second-guessing the setlist(s) seemed to be a common thread.

I waited until I heard it 3 times to make up my mind about Bayou Lena. There’s just something that bugs me about the song and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Thematically it reminds me of Hold The Wheel and musically it is very similar to lots of Jojo’s other songs, so I have a hard time getting into it. Maybe it’s just too silly for me to appreciate or maybe I just like all the songs on his "Smiling Assassin" album better, I don’t know. But there were other things to enjoy on Sunday night, so moving on

Rock and Give were 2 well-prescribed songs to close out the set. The "I’m gonna make it home" line was of course appropriate, but the power of the song as a whole really picked things up from some of the slower moments early on. With Panic Fans For Food having a record-setting day at Smith’s Olde Bar earlier that afternoon, Give was like the theme song that we knew was coming. That is one song that seems fresh to me no matter how much they play it. JB’s "I can hear you smacking in the closet" line was sinister and made my skin crawl, for obvious reasons. It also got my own curiosity aroused, wondering if that line was intended for anyone in particular, but I probably oughtta let that one go too…

The second set on Sunday was a well played, albeit particularly standard setlist. The hardest thing about getting into it was that it seemed like every fast song was immediately followed by a slower one, making it hard for the band to find a steady groove. Action Man was fast out of the gate (sorry had to say it), but Big Wooly Mammoth seemed lackluster in comparison. Chilly Water was also a screamer, but even the well-liked Down kind of pulled the rug out from under the set’s momentum. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues made sense as a follower to that, but as soon as the band cranked things back up with Surprise Valley we were headed into drums.

The set ended with well-played if not spectacular versions of Climb To Safety, Pilgrims, and Blackout, but the end of the show seemed rushed. I think a Sunday curfew could have possibly had something to do with it. The show was over well before midnight, if memory serves. Unfortunately, the encore was extremely lacking. I would have been disappointed with a Wondering>Ain’t Life Grand encore on a weeknight in Omaha, but thought it was especially lame for a show on New Year’s weekend.

Of course, by this point it’s obvious that song preference for both the fans and the band is a totally subjective thing. I’m sure there were kids at Philips Arena who were holding out for that Ain’t Life Grand with their last hope and had their prayers answered. I didn’t know any of them, but whatever.

Which brings us to Monday night. New Year’s Eve. The grand finale. The big enchilada. The night that we were all going to get our favorite songs, and see our favorite guests jam with the band (the ghost of Jerry along with David Blackmon on fiddle, of course), and hold out for that 5th set at 4am, you know THE WORKS. I mean, the band wouldn’t dare play a song we hadn’t all heard before, but they certainly wouldn’t play songs we’d heard too much to enjoy, right? They would jam just long enough, but not so long that we had to pee before they were through. Drums would be long enough to take a quick break, but the drink lines were gonna be short, so that was taken care of. I mean, I had a suite ticket so I could raid the corporate fridge up in the rafters of the club level balcony, so what the hell was I worried about? I also had a floor ticket so I could be with my friends in the sonic sweet spot when the actual music was playing. This night was gonna be the absolute bomb-ass shit and there wasn’t anything that could be done to prove it otherwise.

Ah, but how delusions of grandeur held by mortal men and women sometimes do not match the impending reality. If I was playing close attention throughout the course of the weekend, I could have picked up on hints about Monday night. When we were at Smith’s for the PFFF food drive, Danny Hutchens from Bloodkin was slated to play a free solo acoustic set for charity. But oddly enough, in the space where Danny was supposed to set up, there was an ergonomically designed wheelchair. I stood there, studying it as I helped Josh Stack greet the first fans through the door. "Hey Stack, I thought you said Danny was gonna play this afternoon? You sure we aren’t getting Vic Chesnutt?"

Vic Chesnutt?

Surprise! And Happy New Year.

As the band walked out on stage to get 12/31/01 started, they wheeled old Vic out there for by far the most unique New Year’s set in Panic history. As Jojo and Dave teased the theme from "2001" Vic declared the year 2001 "a suck odyssey."

Blight.

Damn right.

2001 was a dark year. Sordid and twisted, from the dirt streets of Kabul to the seemingly mundane post offices of New Jersey and D.C., 2001 was just a little more than we had bargained for. I think it’s safe to say the same for the first set of 12/31. And don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Vic Chesnutt fan. I think "The Salesman and Burnadette" is absolute fucking genius. However it was really hard to get excited about one whole set of Brute on New Year’s Eve. Even the night before it would have been really cool, but you just couldn’t dance to many of those songs. It seemed like Widespread Panic was putting lots (but not all) of their eggs in one basket with the Brute set.

Fan reaction after the fact ranged from "Damn that was the best set of the entire weekend, and I missed it because I had to WORK" (my roommate) to "aren’t they obligated to print Brute on the ticket stub if they’re gonna do that can I get my $50 back?" I think the true reality lies somewhere in between. The band backed Vic on 9 extremely nasty, dirty, tight Vic Chesnutt songs that were musically solid and lyrically exceptional. With only 4 of them previously recorded, we were left to assume that most will be released on the next Brute album, which has been in the works for quite some time.

I must confess that I appreciated the set much more after I had a chance to listen to it on CD several times. Only a handful of the local fans had a chance to hear Brute play in Athens in 01, so most folks were in the dark throughout the actual live set. Again, in no way was it bad music, it just seemed like bad timing. Dave and Vic trading verses of Blight to open the show was right on. Puppy Sleeps was an ominous little number that showed off the strengths of the lineup very well, with Dave thumping bass and Mikey picking through minor scales with aching precision.

Adirondacks was one of the better tunes of the set. Jojo played a very active role on the piano, which was nice. Vic’s ability to juxtapose words and phrases is second to none. There’s just something about the way "Ad-DIR-ON-dacks" rolls off his tongue. He has the gift of putting poetry to motion, which to skilled songwriters like the guys in Widespread Panic, is something they are naturally attracted to. Morally Challenged was a slinky little blues number that managed to include the towns of Gadsten, AL, Apalatchicola, FL, Union, MS, Slidell, LA, and Albany, GA throughout all the lyrics. If for no other reason, that made it cool.

Scholarship and Sewing Machine were probably the best songs of the Brute set. Their tone was just plain evil and they gave Mike Houser room to tear up the guitar solos, which was something he would end up doing all night long. By the end of the night, I was certain the neck of his guitar had a crack in it. He played his ass off all night long, straight through to the North that closed the 3rd set. His playing was thoroughly impressive from start to finish. There’s lots to look forward to with the new Brute album. But there wasn’t any beer left for me back in the suite after the end of the first set. My co-workers in the Cox luxury box drank every last one in under an hour.

Oh well, who ever said Vic Chesnutt’s songs don’t make you want to get drunk? Shit.

The second set was kind of like "oh yeah, there’s JB." He was almost too gracious in surrendering the limelight to Vic Chesnutt in the first set, but he came out and opened things up again with the oh-so-psychologically-meaningful City Of Dreams. Pigeons and the funk jam that follows it provided an awesome springboard into Old Neighborhood, now without a doubt the best new song in the band’s repertoire. The climax at the end of that song was the first of many great Neighborhood jams to come, no doubt about it. And Conrad was the right way to end 2001. "Got no time to play. . . Leavin’ child, I can’t stay."

After the events of the weekend so far, guessing the third set opener seemed like a daunting task. The band chose to stick close to home with a fast Porch Song to welcome 2002. Thinking back to NYE 1997 at the Fox, it’s hard to argue. The rest of the set was well played and without quibbling about the song choices (again a totally subjective thing,) the set was simply grand. Even those in attendance who were unexcited by Jojo’s choice of Tallboy or One Arm Steve, two of the more overplayed songs in Panic’s regular rotation, couldn’t bitch about the jam at the end of Greta. All 6 band members were in sync, hitting on all cylinders, and giving it up for the 20,000+ freaks in celebrating in Phillips.

As I was looking at several black and white banners that littered my coffee table during the week, I saw something that had a picture of Dylan, Hendrix, Bob Weir and Dave Schools with "Watchtower" printed on it. I was thinking to myself, "Hell Dave sings that song better than Bobby does." He would prove me right on NYE, and I’m not even a particularly big fan of All Along The Watchtower. Arleen and even the Drivin>Disco>Drivin seemed almost like they were expected on New Year’s Eve. I mean, play all that at a regular tour show on a Friday night in Portland and folks are screaming from the rooftops. I think the fans at Philips this year really took it all for granted. Post-show comments from the peanut gallery on the Internet would certainly attest to this.

In the end, the three songs that closed the show were just what the doctor ordered. North to me is like the one missing link that deserved to be on "Don’t Tell The Band." I think that’s the best cover song in the regular rotation, both lyrically and musically. Houser absolutely wore it out on this night, to the point where David Dean was punching me in the chest like I couldn’t feel it in the middle of the ending jam. Visiting Day is probably the most complex and meaningful Jojo song in the Panic rotation, and of course, Space Wrangler is the song behind the story. From the pregnant sister who was up on the big screen each night with the "little wrangler on board" shirt, to the masses holding up their glasses for "cheers to our friends so near" at the end of the song, THAT is what it’s all about.

Anyone that couldn’t hug a friend or get a joyous feeling inside on New Year’s eve, as opposed to just passing stale judgement on some words written down in an acid-stained notepad or bitch about some unrecognized songwriter they never took the time to understand, then they didn’t get the point. If walking out into the cold morning’s air on Techwood Drive didn’t give everyone tingles because they were already WARM all over, then lots of folks probably were in the wrong place on New Year’s Eve this year. And if the music, friends, and family isn’t what it’s all about, then maybe I’m missing the point too.

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