"Feelin' I'm Free": Ringing In 2019 With Widespread Panic January 5, 2019 14:56

Words by Erika Rasmussen

Photos by Craig Baird: Home Team Photography

People all over the world have their own New Year’s traditions. A little ritual to mark the end of one year and, hopefully, usher in the next with joy and love. Some people greet every New Year in a bar with their friends. Or in Times Square. Or at home, eating black eyed peas for prosperity with family. For my “framily”, we follow Widespread Panic on December 31st.

This year, as often happens, that was a three-night run at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta. For me, and thousands of others, this pilgrimage reunites me with those I love on tour, introduces me to the new and amazing people that somehow still always seem to appear, and reminds me why I love this damn band so much after decades of doing this. Night One kicked it all off with an opener we’ve never seen before: “Vacation”. So, yeah. Let’s just begin with something we’ve never done before, shall we? We’re all glancing over at each already. “Did they just…?” “Have we opened with this before?” “What’s Curtis saying?” The first set saw many of our beloved classics, including “Papa’s Home”, which went well with the commemorative Papa print we all loved of Valentine’s this weekend. Second set favorites for me were the Low Spark > Jam > Low Spark. The whole weekend was very “jammy”.

Recently, I’ve noticed myself becoming defensive about the “jam band” description for Panic. “No, no, no,” I’ll say. “You don’t understand. It’s more than that. It’s blues and southern rock and so much more.” But why should I be defensive about a jam band title? When done well, like it was this weekend, a jam band’s work is transcendent. It’s magical. It jams you away from a song you know and love and takes you to another place and then brings you back to a song you forgot you left. That’s mystical.

On Night Two, they decided to reeeeeally impress us. They not only opened with a slow “Porch Song” (swoon), but they closed the night with “Porch Song”. They’ve never played both versions in one show and this was dubbed on the setlist as “Front Porch/Back Porch”. Heh. How witty is that? Another front/back feature of the weekend was the double-sided Matt Leuning minis, printed at Ruby Sue Graphics. It means so much to me, and to all of us, that this band and this community has placed a high value of promoting visual artists and letting their creativity run wild.

Matt also created commemorative coins this weekend, of which I was gifted one by my friend, Zeke. The slow “Porch” opener was followed by Billy Joe Shaver’s “Chunk of Coal”, last played two years ago on the NYE run. The second set included a “Ball of Confusion” jam out of “Rebirtha”. Thanks for the tease, boys. Of course, the show closer of that second, “fast” Porch knocked everyone’s socks off. Great way to end the night.

Night Three began with a beautiful “For What It’s Worth” that would set the tone for an emotional evening. Acoustic JB was a nice touch for the first set, as were his red pants. The second set featured a heavy focus on jams and I danced myself weary, especially during “Good People”. This is a topic I’ve been preaching on this year. It was good to see people behaving themselves (relatively speaking) at this show. I saw people treating each other respectfully, working hard to get tickets for their friends, miracling total strangers on Peachtree Street, gifting stickers and koozies and whatnot, and a kind gentleman bought drinks for my friend and I when our cards wouldn’t scan.

Of course, I heard stories of some guys not treating the ladies so respectfully, sadly. But each of those stories seems to end with “…and then So-And-So came up and told him off in no uncertain terms.” We stand up for each other. We ARE the good people. Remember that going into this year. Apparently, our good behavior was rewarded.

After the midnight countdown, the band went into “The Waker”. Lemme repeat myself for those in the back. They went into “THE WAKER”. Whaaaaat?!? Years ago, our dearly missed Mikey Houser wrote this song, titled after his son. The song hasn’t been touched by the band since Mikey’s passing in ’02. We never thought they would touch it again. It’s like Grandma’s china that you put away and don’t ever break out in live action anymore. You just appreciate for the beauty and the care that went into the creation of the thing. And then one day, you’re eating ribs (and whiskey) off that china and you love it even more. You realize that it’s a thing that’s meant to be taken out into the daylight. And when Panic brought this song back out into the light, oh my.

It took a few moments for the first few notes of “The Waker” to really sink in. We all look at each other. We do that “cover your mouth in shock” thing with our hands. “Are they really playing it?” “Is this a tease?” Damn. They played it. The whole thing. And we were in awe. And in tears. And in love. And in hugs with our friends. It was an amazing thing to behold. Talk about an emotional release to start your new year. Thankfully, we danced the tears away by going straight into “Arleen”. And that always gets you shakin’, doesn’t it?

I’m especially happy that the Fox run included a nod to Col. Bruce Hampton (Retired) in the form of a JB/Schools Zambi rap into “I’m So Glad”. We miss you, Col., and we were certainly thinking of you in that venue of all places. The third set also included the second ever “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” that was face melting. Our encore consisted of dear songs like “End of the Show” and the first ever “Bastards in Bubbles” from the brute. project with Vic Chestnutt.

I can’t thank the band and staff and fans enough for 23 years of “therapy” at these shows. This was one of my very favorite runs, for so many reasons. I’m going into the new year looking forward to discovering more amazing surprises and reconnecting with more long-loved treasures. Skäl, everyone. Cheers to your friends so near.

Watch Widespread Panic perform "The Waker" here:
Watch Widespread Panic perform "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" here":