Widespread Panic, Philips Arena, Atlanta- 12/30 & 31
The first truly transcendent moment of Widespread Panic's year-ending run at Philips Arena didn't come until the second night's rendition of "Disco." That's not to say the prior two nights didn't contain high points, but the good times for good times' sake bounce of "Disco," falling effortlessly out of "Sleepy Monkey," gave Philips Arena and its 19,000 or so SRO inhabitants the energy to heave skyward and fly away into the night. It was at this point, halfway through the second of three New Year's Eve sets, where the band was most together, and where the magnitude of it all really seemed to settle inwe were, after all, closing down on The End, at least for a time. The long-announced and oft-discussed year-long hiatus that had been hovering over the Panic community since the early part of 2003 finally started to feel like a tangible reality, but the band seemed to play better for it, relaxing in the comfort of one of their best numbers, letting the music do the work. It's in these moments, with the musicians and crowd sparking off each other to transform the arena into some great spaceship blasting out of the earth, that you really remember why these shows are so much fun to begin with.
I've already resigned myself to the frequent lapses in objectivity that will mark this review. There's just no way to write a review this personal, about a band this personally huge, while maintaining impartiality or critical detachment. Not gonna happen. Too many of my friends, my best friends, came into my life because of Widespread Panic, and too many hours of my life have been spent driving to or from one show or another, or writing about, or listening to, or thinking of Panic; their music is the soundtrack for too much of my life over the past few years. These shows, the last before the hiatus, have been such a big milestone for so long that it's a little hard to believe they've finally come and gone, and it's frustratingly anticlimactic to attempt to distill my reaction into words. But I feel the need to express something about it, so let the record show that the run here incorporated memorable guests (Derek Trucks, Chuck Leavell, and Randall Bramblett) and most of the band's very best songs, from "Love Tractor" to "Disco" to "Driving Song" to "Pigeons" to "Barstools and Dreamers" and, to the crowd's delight, the long-shelved "Vacation," all played satisfactorily loud, making full use of Philips' rather exceptional (for a place its size, at any rate) acoustics. The festivities remained focused as much on celebrating the possibilities of another New Year as they did on adding a capstone to a long, brilliant run. And as the final notes of "Makes Sense To Me" died away in the small hours of January 1st , and the band said thanks and put down their instruments and walked away, I stood drained after eight hours of music, wondering if I could ever be in a place like this again, if I ever wanted to be, if it will even be possible.
Those expecting sweeping pronouncements or sentimental speeches from the stage didn't get them. As ever with Panic, the message was in the music, from the first night's opening "Love Tractor" (warming up the engine for a ride) to the "Makes Sense To Me" coda (taking a look around, realizing everything really does make sense after all, and deciding it's a good time to break). Oh, sure, I could quibble. I could haggle. I could wonder why the band wasted precious time in their last performance for many months on a mediocre mishmash of a tune like the undercooked "Bust It Big," a rambling sketchbook of disjointed lyrical images that does nothing in its current form except crash into a big sloppy pile. Or I could comment on the green laser lights during the New Year's Eve show, which despite looking kinda-sorta cool a few times, were really just sub-Pink Floyd quality and probably not worth the trouble (although, it must be said, a huge improvement over the grainy, amateurish video that accompanied the last Philips run). I could say that the much-acclaimed guest shot by Trucks on night one's super-sized "Space Wrangler" and "Mercy" jams, while momentous and technically awesome, wound up feeling like a rambling story that had been started with no good end in mind, and devolved into little more than meaningless noodling before finally running out of gas and just coasting to a stop somewhere on the shoulder of a big empty highway. Or I could simply say that, despite the number of inevitable minor low points, these two shows comprised a love letter from Widespread Panic to their fans, written in the code of songs that have become a secret language for a devoted community, a monument to the power of perseverance, a chance to hear that big soundthe crunch of John Bell's guitar against the frenzied ring of George McConnell's (a sound that simply either works for you or not; it doesn't work for plenty, but these ears enjoy it more often than not), the heavy/light dance of Jojo Hermann's keyboard work, the entire massive beast shoved along by the oceanic power of the Dave Schools- Todd Nance – Sunny Ortiz rhythm section—happily fill the cavern of Philips at least this once more, something to be grateful for.
So there it is: a sense of closure, at least for a time; of rest; of satisfaction. The big six-cylinder engine is back in the barn for awhile, cooling down. Over these two nights, the six members of what Widespread Panic is today took a long look around and did, in fact, pronounce the world as they've made it satisfying. In 2005, most likely, they'll wander outside and warm the engine up again, and start to remember where all the levers are, but as of now only six people in the world know for sure if Panic will ever really be back, and in what way. But the prevailing feeling at the end of this two-night stand, which really felt like one epic show, was this: no matter what happens from here, the band is all right with it, and so am I.