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Published: 2015/12/30
by Wesley Hodges

Widespread Panic, Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA- 12/29

Photo by Wesley Hodges

Long before becoming a staple at the downtown Philips Arena and breaking the all-time sell out record for concerts at the home of the Atlanta Hawks, Widespread Panic’s home base in Georgia’s capital city was the Fabulous Fox Theatre. For a few years in the mid/late-90s, Panic had a stronghold on the venue at year’s end and the announcement that they’d be returning to treat fans to their first New Years run in over fifteen years came as a big, pleasant surprise.

The 1929 venue is truly one of the South’s most historic, spellbinding performance spaces and calling it an architectural marvel would be shortchanging the place, they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Seeing anyone, let alone one of the Peach State’s most treasured veteran bands, is something to cherish. Anticipation was remarkably high for this run of shows, as evidenced by an almost instantaneous sellout when tickets went up for sale this fall.

Tuesday’s three-hour performance marked the first of three nights leading into the New Years Eve and it became abundantly clear early on that this was to be no mere “warm-up” exercise. An early tribute to the recently departed Lemmy of Motorhead came in the second slot by way of a roaring, bass-heavy cover of “Ace of Spades.” Dave Schools once again showed why his second life will take the form of a full-time heavy metal bassist, as he ripped through the Motorhead classic and whipped his hair wildly while dressed in standard all black.

“Ace of Spades” was the first of a handful of tunes to receive notably enthused roars of approval from the packed house and although the show was heavy on crowd pleasing longtime staples (“Driving Song > Papa’s Home > Driving Song,” Climb To Safety” and “Surprise Valley” just to name a few), it was a pair of surprise cover segments and numerous sit-ins by Chuck Leavell (the Georgia-based keyboardist is an Allman Brothers Band alum and current touring member of The Rolling Stones) that fans will remember most about the 12/29/15 night at the Fox.

If playing in front of 60,000 people just a few blocks over with the Stones at Bobby Dodd Stadium six months prior was Leavell’s likely personal musical highlight of 2015, one would have to think that helping out Panic with first ever covers of The Stones’ “Dead Flowers” and “Jessica” (Allman Brothers Band) at the Fox Theatre would also list very highly.

During the unlikely (if not long overdue) “Jessica” cover (Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring put in a brief stint as a touring member of the ABB during the summer of 2000 after Dickey Betts departed), the roars came in numerous waves during the classic instrumental’s many key solos, perhaps no more following the ivory masterclass put on by Leavell and JoJo Hermann and before Herring and John Bell’s final run through the songs primary guitar verse. Although possible, it’s hard to fathom a cover selection receiving a larger ovation of approval given the context than this one during the run and I count myself lucky to have witnessed such a special moment.

While set two was strong and full of major highlights (see the trio of reggae/feel good covers of Jimmy Cliff and Johnny Nash that included “Many Rivers to Cross,” “I Can See Clearly Now,” and “Sittin’ Here in Limbo” and blistering and seamless run through Panic originals “Good People > Who Do You Belong To?”), tonight was a somewhat rare occasion where the opening set outshined the more extensive and jam-centric set that followed.

Leavell returned for the encore to trade solos with JoJo on Hermann’s barroom anthem “Blackout Blues” and vintage Panic party tune “Porch Song” to close out the show at the stroke of midnight, sending fans out to Peachtree Ave. satisfied and raring for what’s to come in nights two and three.

While tickets to this New Years Run weren’t cheap or easy to come by, as they’ve been doing on Halloween and New Years runs for what seems like ages, the Athens-born Athens sextet yet again delivered the goods, crafting a one-of-a-kind concert experience for even the most traveled and seasoned fans who made the trek.

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