Panic in the Streets - 10th anniversary

photo by Jeff Montgomery

Panic in the Streets
Honoring the 10th anniversary of Athens' Infamously Massive Spreadhead Invasion
by Chris Hassiotis for

Hearing that the city of Athens has a vibrant and integral music scene is not the same as seeing it, hearing it and being overwhelmed by it. That’s what happened to me on Saturday, April 18, 1998.

I was 18 years old and in my first year at the University of Georgia. Having lived in town for only about half a year, I had not yet navigated downtown Athens and its art and live music scene which was known to me more by reputation than through experience. I’d been to a few shows once I’d turned 18, sure, and had spent several nights trying to convince dorm friends to go to the Morton for the fledgling film festival I’d read about in a strange and scrappy paper called Flagpole that I’d found discarded on campus, but for the most part if something was going on somewhere, like many students I had no idea how accessible it was.

Widespread Panic collapsed those misconceptions on that Saturday with what came to be known as Panic in the Streets, a record-shattering outdoor concert held in celebration of the release of the band’s first official live album Light Fuse Get Away.

The group set up stage at the west end of Washington Street, right in front of the 40 Watt Club where AthFest currently takes place every summer. The space had been designed and reworked for large outdoor events prior to the 1996 Atlanta summer Olympics, but this was the first time it’d been used for such a large capacity. Furthermore, the show was free, which brought a whole lot of people to town. Conservative estimates put the turn-out at slightly less than 75,000 people; others say it’s likely there were upwards of 120,000 who came to Athens just for the show, meaning that the population of human bodies within the Clarke County lines more than doubled.

I wasn’t even a fan of the band’s music. But I was a fan of spectacle, and seeing the entirety of downtown overrun by enthusiastic music fans was magnificent. I was working as a resident assistant in UGA’s dorms, and had to be on duty in case the hippie hordes overran our facilities, but I was able to break away every few hours and wander through the madness. West Washington was a weirder area then, with no refined organic restaurants or extensively stocked foreign beerhouses. A lot of what’s there now was boarded up, abandoned. Gravel lots instead of paved outdoor seating. It was all teeming with revelry, a swarming outdoor party to which the music almost - almost - seemed secondary. The ebullient crowds were packed as far back as City Hall, and all the way to Clayton near the Globe the pot smoke, hacky sacks and awful dancing was thick.

It was my first taste of Athens’ relationship with its most valuable economic and cultural export, and if a little misrepresentative (nothing of its scale has happened in the music scene since), it at least told me that this was a town willing to set aside normalcy, easy parking and clean smells to celebrate the art that had brought the town international attention. I saw that this was a town serious about its music!
Logistical Nightmare?

Law enforcement authorities freaked out at the idea of an unknown number of music fans overrunning the town. Though it’s part of their responsibility to prepare for the worst, according to many the police were overbearing and overeager in their anticipation of trouble. Gwen O’Looney, Athens’ mayor at the time, remembers the sheriff’s office taking advantage of the situation, having used the Olympics in ’96 to justify the purchase of “some kind of Darth Vader equipment” for crowd control, she says. “It was never needed and completely foreign to the kind of feeling we had about the Olympics and the spirit of the Olympics. He pulled out those uniforms and tried to charge Widespread for more of the same, which we didn’t want and which weren’t needed.”

Navigating the space between an apprehensive, at-times combative and opportunistic government establishment and the band’s management team fell to O’Looney, and everyone interviewed for this article repeatedly credited her with making the concert happen. “Despite Gwen’s best efforts, the city really threw up some hurdles for us,” says Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools. “But I think all the press that that got did nothing but help us out. Y’know, the mayor of Macon said something to the effect of ‘Athens had better let them put their show on, ‘cause if they don’t, they’re welcome to come play in our town for free,’ and that got play in a bunch of papers.”

The band and its record label at the time, Capricorn, also had to pay between $50,000 and $70,000 for the concert, as the city had a “principle” instituted before the Olympics, says O’Looney, that extraordinary events using city resources would have to pay their own way - Athens was one of few Georgia communities not to go into debt after the 1996 Olympics, she adds.

Of course, UGA’s Sanford Stadium held 86,500 people at the time, so it’s not as though the city was unaccustomed to a deluge of visitors. This time around, though, they wouldn’t all be the known quantity of football fans. And without sold tickets, nobody really knew how many people to expect. “This was a new animal,” says O'Looney.

Panic in the Streets took place two months before the very first AthFest, so Athens had yet to establish a steady tradition of outdoor music events (the modest and ever-diminishing Human Rights Festival notwithstanding). The fact is that there were fewer violent arrests that weekend than on most football weekends, and nobody interviewed could recall any serious problems. News reports from the time mention a handful of drug arrests, and the most serious injury came from an out-of-towner who fell out of a tree he’d climbed to watch the band.

According to former Downtown Development Authority executive director Art Jackson (interviewed about this event by Flagpole’s Ben Emanuel in 2005), “The Widespread folks said ‘We don’t have a mean crowd. You know, they don’t fight. They’re mellow.’ And it turned out, they were mellow. I mean, this was laid-back… they came in, enjoyed the music, nobody got mad, no fights, we had no major incidents. Supposedly, the police said there were - and they never showed a video, they had video cameras come in - they had like 36 sex acts that took place or something [laughs]… but of course, they never would show it.”

Cleanup the next day was a challenge for the city and the band alike - everyone had underestimated the amount of trash receptacles necessary, and rubbish covered the streets. It was so deep and so dense that the tires on all the cleanup vehicles blew out from driving over so much glass, and special tires had to be brought in at the last minute.

“It was a very successful show and I remember going down around 7:30 in the morning the next day, just to look at the trash, and it was almost all cleaned up,” says Panic percussionist Sunny Ortiz.

“I wanted to take care of our churches,” says O’Looney, who stayed up the night after the concert, helping with the cleanup. “I did not want anyone to come to church Sunday morning and find their environment polluted by what was an excellent event the night before.”

The economic effect on the town’s businesses was impressive, too, and bartenders who are around now will still occasionally recount that night, when a number of bars, stores and restaurants sold out completely of, well, everything in stock.
Could We Do It Again?

There are five Athens-related acts who could, with the right promotion - it’d have to be presented as a special event, not just any outdoor show - feasibly create a similar massive event in downtown Athens, drawing attendees from across the country as Panic did 10 years ago. It’s up to either the acts to approach the government, or some enterprising elected official or show promoter to take on the monumental responsibilities.

Widespread Panic:
Well, they did it once; why not again? “We’re a little bit older now, and we don’t have a record company to help us foot the bill on something like that,” says Ortiz. “But I can’t say it’ll never happen.” The band has steadily released albums and its fans are as committed as ever.

Whether or not an event like Panic in the Streets - documented on the 2002 DVD of the same name - can be repeated, it was an important moment in the relationship between Athens as a whole and its music scene.

“I think it’s a landmark event,” says the former mayor. “The crowd that came here will never forget that event, and I don’t think that Athens will. I think people were totally amazed, and proud of how excellently their community had executed this huge feat.

“It’s a bad thing when a community is not willing to take a risk every once in a while for an industry or a constituency that is integral to its character.“