Goliath of jam rock, Widespread Panic, wrapped up its four-night run at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta on Saturday. It was a summer New Year’s Eve spectacle as John Bell wielded an acoustic guitar through the first set and featured a special sit-in by Aquarium Rescue Unit’s Matt Mundy on mandolin. A heavy second set was overshadowed by a Grateful Dead bust out that has been on the shelf since 1988. With more surprises up its sleeves, Panic finished with a six-selection encore paying tribute to Michael Houser, Daniel Hutches, Col. Bruce Hampton, and a debut from Leonard Cohen’s collection.
When Panic emerged for the first set, the barebones stage was stripped naked, absent of all lighting rigs and display boards, for a no-bullshit, no façade, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, we-got-nothing-to-hide vibe. JB picked up an acoustic guitar and sat centerstage before opening the final night with “Space Wrangler”.
The tempo and momentum peaked under Jimmy Herring’s careful guidance and after a quick pause rolled “Airplane” down the runway. Giving the audience time to settle down, the characteristic opening of “Jack” took the crowd back to the days of kings, queens, jesters, and wizards.
Remaining in the realms of its own catalog, Panic celebrated the beauty of imperfection during “Gradle” before welcoming mandolist Matty Mundy, Herring’s former ARU bandmate, onstage to finish out the first set.
JB introduced the mandolinist as the audience’s excitement became palpable, “Ladies and gentlemen, our sincere pleasure, Mr. Matt Mundy! It’s been 29 years since Mr. Matt has been with us.” The last time that the mandolist sat in with WSP was during H.O.R.D.E. tour at Merriweather Post Pavilion on July 25th, 1993.
After a bare-foot stomp through The Dillards’ “There Is A Time”, the seven-piece band strolled their way into “Pickin’ Up The Pieces”. With the help of the two former ARU members, the gang paid tribute to their cosmic sensei for the first—though not last—time of the night with Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die.” (“I don’t mind dying / but I hate to leave my children cry.”)
The performance of the long-standing staple of Col. Bruce’s act was made extra special as Herring chiseled out an emotional solo. To finish the first set, WSP, Matt Mundy, and the crowd—singing along—aced a cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied.”
When the band returned to the stage from set break, lighting director Paul Hoffman’s traditional backdrop and light rig were already mounted and ready for a scorching second set. JoJo Hermann’s piano kicked open the door to a monumental “Bust It Big” before giving Sunny Ortiz room to spread his wings and segue into a soaring “Surprise Valley”. Breaking down the melody into its most primitive rhythm, Duane Trucks and Sunny Ortiz walloped their kits before being joined by the rest of the band to finish off the tune.
JoJo carried the music with his scintillating keyboard until Dave Schools hammered out the bass-heavy opener of “Bear’s Gone Fishin’”. Herring kicked his spurs into an inspiring solo before another transition landed on a fiery “Give” which featured a call-and-response section between JB and Schools.
After a short pause, Panic played “Pilgrims” to honor the loyal community who so often wander the nation’s interstate highways to see the band that they love. Adding fuel to the fire, Herring continued injecting rocket fuel into every mix.
Following another quick breather, WSP donned “Halloween Face” for the ninth time since its debut at NOLAween last year. The tumultuous jam subsided only to be resurrected by an equally dark instrumental jam, Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”, written by Eddie Hazel and George Clinton. Jimmy shone as bright as the sun and sucked the audience in with the gravitational pull of a black hole.
Back into the band’s own repertoire, Schools led the charge into a wild “Chilly Water”, giving the feral animals in the audience a chance to relinquish their only hopes of hydration. The tune broke down as Duane Trucks and Sunny Ortiz once again conducted a gentleman’s duel until JoJo’s organ joined in to rebuild the song’s structure.
After every member of the band had time for their individual input, the sizzling introduction of “Contentment Blues” fed those in attendance with medicine for the soul, fried chicken and greasy blues. (“No place you gotta be / keep your head in the leaves / the air smells sweet up here / my chicken tastes good!”) Showing no sign of slowing down, JoJo layered his piano on top of the frenzied drum line to dig up and resurrect “Big Wooly Mammoth” for an evolutionary romp “in the middle of the summertime!”
Emotions unraveled as even the most stoic members of the crowd fought to keep themselves together as a heartfelt “Gimme” segued into the biggest bust out in the band’s history with a cover of Grateful Dead’s “Bird Song.” Breaking out this long-shelved tune after 2,941 shows and 34 years to honor both Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin, the writer and muse, respectively. (“Laugh in the sunshine, sing, cry in the dark, fly through the night!”)
Since the band did not play during the Days Between this year, it was an opportune tribute, and Widespread Panic executed the movements flawlessly. To finish the massive two-hour second set, Panic uncaged “Pigeons” to break the jaw-dropping stupor brought on by the preposterous once-in-a-lifetime bust out.
The. band members returned to their positions on stage to reveal even more treats as the encore slot added another half-hour of music. Maintaining the avian theme, Widespread debuted Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” after JB thanked the audience and Matt Mundy. Whether as a tip of the cap to the Atlanta Falcons and the approaching football season or merely wise guys doing it just cause they can, the interpretation is subjective, but the result is the same. It was a badass triplet of bird songs.
As is every time the band plays together, Panic paid tribute to fallen founding bandmate, Michael Houser, with a pairing of “Travelin’ Man” and “The Waker” akin to the encore of the third night of the Beacon Theatre run. “The Waker” wasn’t played for almost 20 years before being brought back in the very same venue during 2018’s NYE run.
Unlike the third night of the Beacon run, Panic stayed onstage, not quite done yet. With no more than a moment’s pause, the band continued with a cover of “Trashy”, the honest and articulate vernacular from the songbook of the late Daniel Hutchens of Bloodkin.
Returning to its own archives for one final time, WSP performed “Weight of the World” before finishing the final show of the run by celebrating the life of mentor Col. Bruce once more with a euphoric singalong of “I’m So Glad”. Col. Bruce played his last show on the same stage during his 70th birthday party in a story that—like the man himself—was far stranger than fiction.
Widespread Panic rolls on to Napa Valley, CA next on August 26th–28th for a run that was rescheduled from last year. The outskirts of Washington D.C. plays host September 16th–18th, followed by two nights at Mempho Music Festival in Memphis, TN, and the recently announced annual Milwaukee run October 21st–23rd. Halloween in Savannah and New Year’s Eve in Nashville are slated to round out the year.
Widespread Panic – “Space Wrangler” – 8/13/22
Widespread Panic, Matt Mundy – “Pickin’ Up The Pieces” – 8/13/22
Widespread Panic – “Maggot Brain” (Funkadelic) > “Chilly Water) – 8/13/22
Widespread Panic – “Big Wooly Mammoth” – 8/13/22
Widespread Panic – “Bird Song” (Grateful Dead) – 8/13/22
Widespread Panic – “Bird On A Wire” (Leonard Cohen) – 8/13/22
Widespread Panic – “I’m So Glad” (Col. Bruce Hampton) – 8/13/22
Setlist: Widespread Panic | The Fox Theatre | Atlanta, GA | 8/13/22
Set One: Space Wrangler, Airplane, Jack, Gradle, There Is A Time (There Is A Time)*, Pickin’ Up The Pieces*, Fixin’ To Die (Bukka White)*, Don’t Be Denied (Neil Young)* (55 mins)
Set Two: Bust It Big > Surprise Valley > Bear’s Gone Fishin’ > Give, Pilgrims, Halloween Face, Maggot Brain (Funkadelic) > Chilly Water, Contentment Blues, Big Wooly Mammoth > Gimme > Bird Song (Grateful Dead), Pigeons (116 mins)
Encore: Bird On A Wire (Leonard Cohen), Travelin’ Man > The Waker, Trashy (Bloodkin), Weight of the World, I’m So Glad (Col. Bruce Hampton) (35 mins)
Notes * w/ Matt Mundy on mandolin (of ARU – last sat in 7/25/93 Merriweather)
– ‘Maggot Brain’ LTP 8/08/21 Asheville (48 shows)
– ‘Bird Song’ LTP 5/15/88 Greenville (2,941 shows!!!)
– ‘Bird On A Wire’ FTP (Leonard Cohen)
– JB seated acoustic during 1st set
– 1st set without backdrop or light rig; stage lights only