How many bands can you think of that have made it 25 years, continuing to enamor their fans?Â Â The first groups that likely come to mind are bands as highly regarded as the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers Band, or the Rolling Stones; both of whom have persevered through the loss of key members, addiction, health issues, and an ever changing standard of what is considered “good” music.Â Â The lesser known Widespread Panic is a recent addition to this list and in their 25 years together, they have experienced momentous highs and endured through unthinkable lows.Â Â To the delight of a nation of devoted fans, “The Boys” who met in Athens, GA back in 1986 chose to celebrate the occasion by playing three unforgettable shows at two historic venues.
February 10, 2011
The anniversary tour started with a two night run at the Classic Center and would close three nights later at the famed Fox Theatre in Atlanta.Â Â Both venues are sites of legendary Widespread Panic shows, but the Classic Center is actually on the same plot of land where they played their first official show way back on February 6, 1986, when the Mad Hatter Ballroom occupied the parcel.Â Â At that time, the band had very few original songs and was primarily a Grateful Dead cover band.Â As the first set of the anniversary tour was underway it was clear that this initial performance had not been forgotten.Â Â An opening trio of “For What it’s Worth,” “Sleepy Monkey,” and “Chilly Water” hinted at a possible repeat performance of that first Widespread union.Â Â Of course this was merely a nod to their beginnings as the band has never repeated a set in their 25 year history.
After the stunning opener, the first set continued with a vigor fueled by the passion of the crowd and some well-placed guest performances.Â Â A massive “One Armed Steve” > “Mr. Soul” had everyone on their feet and featured what was possibly the biggest improvisational moment of the night.Â Â Shortly after, the band was joined by Grammy-nominated John Keane and Anne Richmond Boston. “This Cruel Thing,” a song by the recently deceased Vic Chesnutt was played with elegance, and Boston’s female vocals truly added to the song’s emotional depth.
The rest of the night was filled with well played classic songs like “Jack,” “Space Wrangler” and “Coconut,” but nobody was prepared for the bubbly bass line that came out of the lateral drum interplay between Sunny Ortiz and Todd Nance. The Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain,” a bomb that slapped the crowd across the face, had not been played since 10/2/88.Â Â And man, did they play it. Front man John Bell came with a full out “Fire on the Mountain” rap as Jimmy Herring’s guitar wailed as ifÂ he was harnessing Jerry Garcia, while Dave Schools held down the low end with his wizardry on the bass.
At this point it was evident that the band came to throw down.Â This veteran outfit was not only out to celebrate a career, but to do so in a manner that demonstrated a retrospective glance and provided evidence that nothing has been lost in the long strides and shorts sprints that span a quarter of a century.
February 11, 2011
Night two of the Classic Center would be no exception.Â Â A cover of the Guess Who’s “No Sugar Tonight” kicked things off and hinted to the crowd that there was plenty more heat to follow.Â Â A fairly standard “Tall Boy” came next which served as a terrific lead into the ever funky Funkadelic cover of “Red Hot Mama” and “Machine” > “Barstools.” Even with all of this greatness, the set had yet to peak.
At least that was the case until another bust out cover,Â “Nights in White Satin,” came to fruition.Â This original Moody Blues tune had not been played in 2,422 shows, or since 10/9/87, whichever is easier to grasp.Â Â The bluesy rendition was filled with the raspy vocals of Bell repeating, “Oh, how I love you” as though he was paying tribute to the attentive, fun loving, and long enduring crowd.
After the colossal set, the band still had more to give.Â Â Set two brought about some profoundly heavy songs, including “Worry,” “Imitation Leather Shoes,” “Blight,” “You Got Yours,” and “Impossible.”Â In the middle of all this, there was still room for another bust out that again paid tribute to the band that started it all, the Grateful Dead, and a cover that had not seen the light of day since 1989, “New Speedway Boogie.”
With the particularly telling line, “I don’t know but I’ve been told it’s hard to run with the weight of gold, on the other hand I’ve heard it said it’s just as hard with the weight of lead,” it was as though Widespread was summing up their career and moreover life itself. Life is a struggle whether one is with money or without. It is all about the journey and enjoying the good times along the way.
The show would close with a seldom-seen double encore consisting of Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied” followed by “Postcard,” “Driving Song > “Breathing Slow” and the traditional “Porch Song.” It was a classy way of finishing up what will certainly be looked upon as an epic run in the Classic City.
Â February 14, 2011
Three days later, on Valentine’s Day, the historic run would culminate with a final performance at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. Though the location had changed, the sentiments were the same; another sold out night with a mass of fans in anticipation of what would be played.Â Like the Athens run, The Fox performance featured some quality guest performances and multiple breakouts of infrequently played songs; a highlight being the set one closing combination of “Basically Frightened,” “Smokestack Lightning,” and “Born Under a Bad Sign” with the gifted and revered yet infamous Col. Bruce Hampton and blues guitar maestro Tinsley Ellis. Though the rest of the gig was not quite as technically in line as the previous outings were, it definitely held its own and sent fans out with a smile following the first time played Dire Straits’ song, “Sultans of Swing.”
In their 25 years together, Widespread Panic has not only endured but found success of which the majority of bands will never see.Â Their songbook is the soundtrack for many people’s lives. Along the way they have lost many dear friends including founding member Michael Houser, friend and musical collaborator Vic Chesnutt, keyboardist T. Lavitz, longtime guitar tech Wayne Sawyer, lighting engineer Dino Derose, Forrest Vereen, and most recently, original equipment manager Garrie Vereen. Through all of this they have achieved more than they ever could have expected including: the release of 11 studio albums, numerous live albums, induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame (2008), as well as holding records for most sold-out shows at Red Rocks and Philips Arena.Â In all of this success, the band never forgot about their fans and hasÂ used their fame to help others.Â Â They have raised significant amounts of money for charities like Tunes for Tots and the Make it Right Foundation.Â Â Additionally, being aware that the “anniversary shows” were at small venues and that many would not be able to get tickets, live soundboard streams were made available at no charge to the public.Â Â Widespread Panic is truly a class act and while their future together is uncertain, they are to be commended for nothing less than an outstanding career.