By Brad Hodge
Widespread Panic :: 02.14.11 :: Fox Theater :: Atlanta, GA
When Widespread Panic announced they would be going off the road after 2011 fans knew it would be a special year. With the announcement of early February shows at the Classic Center in the band's hometown of Athens, Georgia and fan favorite Atlanta's Fox Theater it became apparent they had plans to head for all the venues their fans have had a unique relationship with. With the follow up announcement of spring tour dates that include favorites like Louisville's Palace Theater, Birmingham's Oak Mountain and festival appearances like Hangout, Summer Camp and Bonnaroo it had become apparent it will be a busy year. Hot off the heels of the two-night run in Athens, the band took to the stage in Atlanta at the breathtakingly beautiful Fox Theater.
The Fox is definitely one of the country's most visually stimulating theaters. The star lit blue sky that adorns the roof completely sucks patrons in, and gives the illusion of standing outside on a lovely clear evening. The Egyptian decor truly is amazing, and without a doubt creates emotions of world travel and grandeur. Add in a six headed monster firing on all cylinders and you have the canvas for a truly remarkable fairytale. Oh let us not forget it was also Valentine's night.
As mentioned before, the band came out firing on all cylinders, opening with a nice Surprise Valley" that seemed to prime the crowd and get the floor literally moving (the floor of the old historic venue has a bounce to it when things really get going). Segues are an important part of Panic's arsenal; they have always offered unique journeys in and out of songs. Three songs in the band had segued from the opening Surprise Valley" into Pilgrims" and into the somewhat elusive Tie Your Shoes." The energy in the room had really begun to peak by the time the light show launched into a full blown attack on the visual senses during the Neil Young cover Walk On."
Throughout the years the band has played many highly coveted shows at the historic Atlanta landmark. The New Year's Eve runs from 1996-1998 and the band's return in 2005 after hiatus have been jokingly called The Impossible Shows" due to the difficulty finding tickets. Midway through the first set the feelings and expressions up and down the aisles were this night would go down as one more for the record books.
One of the band's mentors, Col. Bruce Hampton, has made his way in and out of the band's history. His magical aurora has enlightened the band and fans on and off the stage for years. When he walked onto the stage to add vocals to Basically Frightened" and Smokestack Lightning," two songs the band do not play often, the building seemed to levitate. The well groomed and suited ushers nicely held down the reins and hoped to contain the rowdy, yet respectful crowd. At times you could even spy them enjoying themselves and laughing as they ushered wild dancers out of the aisle back into a seat.
The most recent addition to the band, guitarist Jimmy Herring has been holding down the lead for the band for a few years now. Many fans immediately fell under his spell after a few turbulent years with George McConnell. Others have expressed a lack of other band members' presence since his arrival. There is no argument against his talent. He has serious chops, but at times it has felt as though the band too eagerly hand things off to his lead. Well, halfway through the first set a complete balance of power had been restored. Bassist Dave Schools was dropping bombs, John Bell's small nuances could be heard coming from his rhythm guitar, and the band as a whole seemed balanced and in tune.
However, on the set closer the band was joined by old friend and guitar slinger Tinsley Ellis, and it most certainly was about the guitars. Tinsley participated in a few of the historic Impossible" Fox shows. He also was a part of one of the band's side projects, Stained Souls. It was a project that never made it out of the Athens/Atlanta area so many fans may be familiar with it but might have never had the opportunity to see the all-star cast consisting of Tinsley Ellis, Col. Bruce Hampton, John Bell, Dave Schools, JoJo Herman, Todd Nance and Count M'butu. The band launched into old Stained Souls favorite Born Under A Bad Sign," and for lack of a better word, it truly was epic. Herring and Ellis dueled it out with some greasy blues licks while Ellis and Bell took turns on vocals.
With the first set in the books there is no better lobby to hang out in. It is a sea of red velvet carpet, historic Egyptian furniture and art. Paired with 25 years worth of fans and friends, the downtime proved to be as much fun as the show. After a round of socializing with friends new and old it was time to get back down to business, and the band wasted no time in doing so with a Disco" opener. After segueing from Disco" through Dinner" and into the intro to City of Dreams," frontman John Bell stumbled and began with the lyrics to Heaven." It was a mistake that quite possibly would have gone unnoticed except that the band had played Heaven" a few nights previous in Athens. And like many bands with rabid fans, the crowd knew they would not repeat something that soon. After a brief moment to walk it off, JB returned to the mic, joined back in with the rest of the band and laughingly began the correct song. These little stumbles did not seem to tarnish the show, but rather showed character and created a moment of humility.
Back on track, the band kept a nice balance of original material and fan favorite covers going with a monstrous Pleas" that segued into the Jerry Joseph tune North." As any Panic fan will tell you catching a Vacation" is magical, but catching one at the Fox is historic. As you get lost in the music and the blue sky up above, the lyrics so glad you could make it" seemed to have never rung more true.
Throughout the band's history their respect and appreciation of others' music have always created a mysterious curiosity as to what they may cover. As a near perfect evening wound to a close, two favorite covers were unleashed. Traffic's Dear Mr. Fantasy" has been in the band's repertoire for a long time, yet before this evening had not reared its head since 2007. The second set closing cover of Neil Young's Last Dance" put what could have easily been the finishing touches on the evening. However there was still an encore on the way.
There is nothing more fitting for an encore than Widespread Panic's Ain't Life Grand." If you had been dancing through the crowd that night and didn't agree with the song's message you might need a psychiatrist. For many years fans have discussed illustrious Sultans of Swing" sound checks and teases, however, the band had never played it in their 25 year history. After the anthemic Ain't Life Grand," the night was brought to a close by the cover of the Dire Straits tune. And the man he steps right up to the microphone/ and says at last just as the time bell rings. Thank you, good night, now it's time to go home'/ And he makes it fast with one more thing/ We are the sultans of swing." Indeed you are boys, indeed you are.
Setlist Set 1: Surprise Valley > Pilgrims > Tie Your Shoes, Walkin' (For Your Love), Walk On, Little Kin > Travelin' Light, Basically Frightened*, Smokestack Lightning*, Born Under A Bad Sign** Set 2: Disco > Diner > City of Dreams, Pleas > North > Big Wooly Mammoth > Drums > Vacation, Dear Mr. Fantasy, Last Dance E: May Your Glass Be Filled, Ain't Life Grand, Sultans of Swing
* with Col. Bruce Hampton on vocals, Tinsley Ellis on guitar ** with Tinsley Ellis on guitar
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