Sunday, April 18, 2010

18 April 1998: Free Widespread Panic Concert on Washington Street

On this day in 1998, Widespread Panic hosted the largest album release party in history for their first live-recorded release, Light Fuse Get Away, on a stage set up in front of the 40 Watt Club on Washington Street. Admission to the show was free, and a day of festivity reigned in downtown Athens.

People from all over the country started to show up on the Friday night before the concert. Widespread Panic had asked their fans to bring food for the Northeast Georgia Food Bank, and one fan from Oregon had 151 pounds of locally-processed chicken delivered to the bank after being told their biggest need was meat. Sandy Creek Park provided camp grounds for fans, and ran shuttles from the park to downtown. The day of the show, bass player Dave Schools told the Banner-Herald that he was happy with the turnout, seeing all the people in town, because "there's a time, when you're young, when it's important to travel around and throw caution to the wind."

The city and band expected somewhere between 15,000 and 35,000 people to come to town. Total turnout was much higher than anticipated, with estimates from police that there were 70,000 people by the time the concert ended. Some organizers thought the turnout was closer to 100,000. It is considered the biggest album release party in history. Among resident concert-goers were Mayor O'Looney, UGA President Michael Adams and his family, and then-Commissioner John Barrow.

Widespread Panic did not want their event to be disruptive to other, previously scheduled events on the 18th. They asked their fans near the stage to be quiet between 6:45pm and the 8pm scheduled start of the show, out of respect for the wedding between Mary Carroll Dillard and Taylor Murray at 7pm at the First United Methodist Church on Lumpkin Street, across from the stage. According to then-Commissioner Doc Eldridge, who was a guest at the service, "Inside the church, you would never have known there were 70,000 people outside." When the bride and groom emerged from the church, hundreds applauded for them.

The band met as students at the University of Georgia, and consider Athens their home. Widespread Panic are longtime underwriters of the local public radio station, WUGA, and wanted the concert to be a gift to their hometown. They had approached then-Mayor Gwen O'Looney in January, 1998, about having the free concert release party in downtown Athens, and had her support. Though Mayor O'Looney was a member of the Athens-Clarke County Downtown Development Authority that would provide some funding for downtown festivals and events, it was the City Manager who had the responsibility to review and approve any special events permits.

The City Manager at the time, Al Crace, was concerned about public sanitation and protection costs to the county. It wasn't until the band's record company, Capricorn Records, and the band itself put up most of the money for the event that the permit was approved, just eight days before the show was scheduled. The Downtown Development Authority used over one-third of their budget to help pay for the concert.

Though the number of people who attended was similar to a typical football Saturday, traffic problems did not occur on the same scale. Sunday morning, there were reports of ankle-deep trash in places on Washington Street near the stage, but total trash collected by the city was only 18.2 tons; in 2009, after a night game versus the South Carolina Gamecocks, UGA removed 70 tons of trash from North Campus.

The band filmed the show, and released it on DVD with the title Panic in the Streets. It is currently sold out on their website.

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