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Published: 2003/07/23
by Tom Baker

Widespread Panic, Civic Center, Mobile, AL – 7/18

Fall 2002 saw Widespread Panic touring almost out of a sense of obligation. That's not to say they were phoning it in, but trying to deal with the untimely death of Mikey Houser and touring with a new guitarist and a greatly reduced palette of songs was clearly taking its toll a band that, for most of the previous fifteen years, made the road its home. Navigating such a dark and difficult stretch could easily have undone Panicmany bands have broken up under far less trying circumstancesbut this group somehow made it through without imploding. Even though Fall 2002 had more than its fair share of rough patches, that tour may someday come to be known as the crucible for a new and powerful chapter in the ongoing story of Widespread Panic. Not only did the band survive to put out a strong new albumthe April release "Ball"but they have bounced back hot on the stage as well.

Celebrating their first show in Mobile since April 2000, Panic worked a sweaty, near-capacity crowd at the Mobile Civic Center into froth with a string of vivid jams on songs both new and old. Over two sets of generous, spirited rock, Panic showed that they have fully regained their stride as a band, tempered by sorrow and loss but reborn with the same fiery heart that catapulted them from Athens, Georgia into the elite ranks of touring bands.

Panic traversed their entire career during a long first set, lighting the fuse with "Little Kin" before an almost obligatory cover of Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock," which includes a tip of the hat to this show's host city ("Way up in the evening, down in Mobile, Alabama…"). The mellow, almost hymnlike "Meeting of the Waters" represented "Ball," while a vigorous take on "1 X 1" let keyboardist and birthday boy John "Jo Jo" Hermann shine. The first set also included exploratory jams of fan favorites "Pigeons" and "Hatfield," the latter featuring a starring role by current lead guitarist George McConnell that, while making no one in the arena forget Mikey, showcased the band's willingness to embrace new directions and sounds yet make their expansive repertoire no weaker for it.

The second set opened with another newer song, "Travelin' Man," a bouncing, melodic tune that celebrates life on the road and, with its pensive, wistful merriness, bears the unmistakable stamp of Mike Houser. That song set the table for a near-epic set that combed the Panic archives for "Greta," "Barstools and Dreamers," "Diner," "Arleen," and the irrepressible "Coconuts," each new number seeming to push the churning crowd to new heights. Anchored by the chugging undertow of Dave Schools' bass, Todd Nance's steady drumming, and effervescent punctuation by percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, frontman John Bell, ever the soulful showman and obviously enjoying the moment, delivered crunching, ringing doses of his Washburn guitar and barked out tributes to influences as diverse as Sly and the Family Stone and Roberta Flack. Meanwhile, McConnell easily held up his end of the bargain, breathing his way into the songs in a way that suggested an impressive comfort and sense of confidence onstage.

Their triumphant return to Mobile bore witness to the fact that Widespread Panic is now standing tall on the other side of the darkness. No longer prisoners of sorrow, no longer looking for themselves, they head into a well-deserved yearlong break rebuilt and reborn. It was obvious to anyone in attendance that Panic is far from spent. Should the band want to keep walking the road after the just-announced vacation they'll take in 2004, it's plain that there are many more miles yet to go.

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