Widespread Panic, Philips Arena, Atlanta, GA- 12/30 & 31
It’s not being overly dramatic to say the year 2002 saw Widespread Panic as a band at a crossroads. As I got ready for the opener of Panic’s two-night, year-ending stand at Atlanta’s Philips Arena, it was nearly impossible not to reflect back and think about how much has changed over the past year. Only a short year ago, even though nobody knew it at the time, we were witnessing Michael Houser’s last performances in Atlanta. With these shows falling squarely at year’s end, when everyone is already in a retrospective mood, there was a certain undeniable gravity in the air.
Some may not care for Philips Arena as a concert venue, and there’s no doubt that intimacy is sacrificed in attempting to play for 18,000 or so people. But if any band has the full sound to fill that kind of space, it’s Widespread Panic. They took no prisoners from the start, with an opening salvo of "Action Man" and "Give" that raised the roof before a good part of the crowd could find their seats.
Fair or not, George McConnell is probably still the biggest question mark for fans at each show right now, but I’m happy to honestly report that New Year’s not only found him clearly more comfortable with his place in the band, but the band also obviously more comfortable and relaxed with him. "Give" slipped into to "Rock," "Stop and Go," and a smoldering "Rebirtha," which gave Sunny his first chance to make his presence fully known.
The second set had a more introspective flavor, with "Slippin’ Into Darkness," a War cover that’s a recent addition to the Panic repertoire, setting up fan favorite "Barstools and Dreamers." With a nice plateau achieved, "Surprise Valley" and "Love Tractor" then worked to keep the near-capacity crowd at a nice boil. Dave Schools and JB migrated to stage right and joined George to steer the band into a "Drums," which brought a visit from guest percussionists and Panic New Year’s vets Dr. Arvin Scott and Count Mbutu. "Drums" ran back into "Henry Parsons Died," followed by "Christmas Katie." Saxophonist Randall Bramblett, who’s been a regular on the Panic stage since the summer, brought along an enigmatic horn section introduced only as "The Boys" for the jazzy "Get In Get Out" before a subdued "Travelin’ Light" closed out the set. An encore of "Trouble" and "All Time Low" wrapped things up, with the crowd mostly satisfied but still a little hungryafter all, each opening night of a run can’t help but feel a bit like a warm-up, especially with an event as epic as New Year’s Eve still in the balance. No matter how hot things got in Philips on the 30th, there was still a sense that both the band and the crowd were holding a little back.
In direct contrast with the 30th, New Year’s Eve had a gentle opening. With both JB and George playing seated acoustic, Dave on stand-up, and frequent producer / collaborator John Keane guesting on pedal steel, night two kicked off with a somber, resonant "City of Dreams." With its refrain of "remember this / our favorite town," and theme of both remorse and hope, the message was that Panic was glad to be back in Atlanta and ready to close out 2002 properly. For the rest of the evening, the band deployed a variety of surprises to keep the crowd on its toes. They may not have brought out Tom Hanks to sing along but a rotating roster of guests kept the Philips stage full: Keane returned on guitar for the closing "Climb To Safety," Randall and the enigmatic brass section made more appearances, and Dr. Arvin Scott returned (with Larry Acquaviva) for "Drums." Plenty of new and unexpected ground was covered here this night, from the rocking "Porch Song" that closed out the taut, excellent first set to covers of the Laura Nyro-penned "And When I Die," Talking Heads’ "Blind," and Stevie Wonder’s "I Wish" (all for the first time ever, natch) to the emotional slideshow that recounted Widespread Panic’s progress from bar band to arena rockers during the countdown to 2003. George continued his earnest, steep upward curve with a starring role on Set 1’s "Stop Breakin’ Down Blues" and again in Set 2’s incendiary "Wondering," and it’s safe to assume that he won a few more people over with his work on this run.
As the final notes died away at almost exactly two a.m. and the sold-out crowd began the long trek home, happy but exhausted, I found myself looking around Philips Arena with one more opportunity to reflect. It’s no understatement to say 2002 was one of the darkest years in Widespread Panic’s nearly two-decade career, but this New Year’s stand conclusively proved that WSP is still traveling the right road, and doing it the right way: with proper recognition of the past, but also with eyes firmly focused forward. Moving differently, but with a familiar grace.