In a world of instant anything and disposable everything, Widespread Panic stands apart. The notion of a band surviving for more than two decades, continually thriving and creating vital music, is almost unheard of in this age of digital sound bites, corporate radio, and pretty video faces. One thing about Panic, they do things on their own terms.
“Part of being in Widespread Panic has always meant trying to break preconceived models of how bands are supposed to work and how they’re presented to the world at large,” explains bassist Dave Schools. This ethos permeates everything the band does from songwriting and recording to touring and finances. The music these six men make has earned them accolades in nearly every major music magazine, but it's their revolutionary business model that's led to features in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Variety, CNN, Billboard Magazine, CNBC and Fortune Magazine.
Panic doesn’t follow the usual format of touring only when there's a new album and then laying low between releases. They tour constantly, and every show is different. In 21 years they’ve never repeated a setlist. They don’t fight for the limelight and search for recognition in the usual places. All songs are credit to the band, and their frontman, John Bell (JB), refuses to even acknowledge his place as the leader.
“I put pressure on myself to be a viable, equal member of the band” says JB. “And leadership - if that perception is imposed or present - that's more because I'm in that traditional role of standing in the middle, singing and playing guitar. But, there is nothing that goes down that's not a democratic process. And 99% of the time, we move unanimously.”
When something is this genuine and this uncompromisingly real, you can sense it immediately. “It still feels like it did when I first started,” says drummer Todd Nance. “That’s kind of crazy. I think we’ve done over 2000 shows and the night before we go on tour I still can’t sleep.” Through their passionate performances Widespread Panic creates a space where people can connect to something larger than themselves. Schools says, “It’s the same sort of fervor that happens at a big tent revival, except no one is telling you how you’re supposed to feel. People are just stumbling into a shared feeling all at once, and it’s overwhelming and surprising and quiet satisfying when it happens.”
JB continues, “The biggest selling point of Widespread Panic is the fan base that comes out to shows and buys our albums. Their relationship with the band, and with each other just as an entity all by itself, that’s the phenomena. And, it’s always been this way.” That relationship has been paramount to the success and longevity of the band. Their fans are some of the most dedicated in the world. In addition to the more than 3 million albums sold, fans follow them around the globe, setting attendance records at some of the most prestigious U.S. venues, and making Widespread Panic a fixture on Pollstar’s annual Top 50 Tours list for more than a decade.
Although the band-fan dynamic, timeless songs and wild rock shows are the defining aspects of Widespread Panic, it doesn’t stop there. The band is dedicated to leveraging their success for those less fortunate. There’s John Bell’s annual Hannah’s Buddies event (which raises funds to fight Spinal Muscular Atrophy), Panic Fans for Food (conceived and run by fans, helping feed hungry communities through donations at Panic concerts), Tunes for Tots (which, in just two years, raised $200,000 for musical equipment in public schools), and their ongoing work with Nuçi's Space to help keep music and arts alive in the state of Georgia.
There’s no way JB could have predicted this life when he began playing guitar with band namesake, Michael “Panic” Houser, back in 1981; and he probably never thought this far down the line when they started the band in 1986 at the University of Georgia with Schools and Nance, eventually joining up with percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz and keyboardist Jojo Hermann. Nance reflects on those early days with great fondness, “Our first year, I remember the Uptown wanted to raise the price from one buck to two bucks and we were like, ‘Nobody will ever pay two bucks to see us.’ So, we made them compromise at a buck fifty. I think we were all a little surprised that people wanted to come and watch this experiment. We were really just playing to make ourselves happy, and by doing that we made other people happy.”
The story of Widespread Panic is also inexorably tied to the dark summer day of August 10, 2002, when Michael Houser lost his battle to pancreatic cancer. “There’s not a day that goes by where we don’t miss Mike” says JB. “What we learned together as a band continues, with slight adjustments.”
Following Houser’s wishes, the band pushed on and never canceled a show. For a few years after Houser’s death, longtime friend and guitarist George McConnell joined the band on stage and was present for the Widespread Panic’s 2006 studio release, Earth To America. Recorded in the Bahamas with legendary producer Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, Lenny Kravitz, ZZ Top, Al Green) at his renowned Compass Point Studios, Earth To America pushed the band to new creative heights and forged a lasting relationship with one of the best producers in the game. Manning was so impressed that he’s even equated Panic to what very well may be the greatest rock band of all time. “I worked with Led Zeppelin years ago, and I just felt a little bit of a similar vibe and energy with these guys," says Manning. "They have a similar mix of individual skill and power that Zeppelin had when I worked with them.”
Using the Earth To America sessions as a building block, Panic has already begun work on their next album with Manning. Although still in the very early stages, Schools also hears a bit of Zep in what the band has laid down, commenting, “Some of the songs really strike me as something you might have heard on Physical Graffiti. They’re complex, beautiful, deep, and it rocks. And its got some melancholy and a lot of color.”
Although the band is excited about the next album, there’s something much bigger going on in the world of Widespread Panic, and his name is Jimmy Herring. Having toured with The Allman Brothers Band, The Dead and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Herring is the perfect lead guitarist for Panic. Taking over where McConnell left off, Herring brings a fresh dynamic to the band and everyone is feeling it.
“There’s a lot of musical happiness in my soul, which is due in part to having a like-minded experimenter. The bass and guitar really go hand-in-hand,” says Schools. Hermann continues, “I’ve just never played with a guitar player like Jimmy before. Everyone’s speaking the same language.” Perhaps Nance says it best, “It’s like our little dreams are coming true. How lucky are we to get another chance after Mikey, to be able to find that chemistry?”
Herring's magic is clear to anyone who's seen Panic play since he took over lead guitar duties on September 14, 2006. Magic is never easy to find, not even for the people making it. “I’ve been a fan of theirs for a long time and a friend since about 1989," says Herring. "I grew up wanting to be in a band [like Widespread Panic]. This is what I’ve been hoping for my whole life. It just came to me pretty late.”
With Herring on guitar, a new album in the works, and a major tour ahead of them, Widespread Panic continues to embrace the passion they’ve shared with fans for over 20 years. “We’re barreling down the tracks and beginning yet another chapter,” says Schools. “It’s not necessarily even an Act Three - life isn’t easily split into acts like theater. It’s been challenging, but it feels like there aren’t any limitations. We're still being children with active imaginations and finger paints.”
Live On Stage:
I'm pretty excited at about seeing Panic for the first time south of the Mason-Dixon line and outside for the first time in a long time. After some line-up reshuffling it seems like Jimmy Herring was the missing piece of the puzzle after the passing of Mikey. From all accounts, mostly from my friend Chilly Jackwater, the band seems hitting their groove again. Here they are with "Ain't Life Grand" from last October....
Also let's go with this performance on Conan from way back in '95....
Some shows for to get your Panic on....
Widespread Panic - 2007-04-18 - Tennessee Theater - Knoxville, TN
Widespread Panic - 2002-06-22 - Bonnaroo Music Festival - Manchester, TN
Widespread Panic - 1995-10-13 - Pompano Beach Amphitheater - Pompano Beach, FL
Widespread Panic - 1993-09-19 - Campus Center - SUNY Fredonia - Fredonia, NY
Widespread Panic - 1992-02-21 - Auburn University - Lamda Chi Alpha House - Auburn, AL
Widespread Panic - 1986-07-08 - Uptown Lounge - Athens, GA
Widespread only has one music video as far as I know and it was directed by Billy Bob Thornton (who makes a brief cameo at towards the end) and features Laura Dern as well - how's that for some star power. Here's "Aunt Avis"....
I'll throw in one more clip for good measure. Here's this cool video of JB and Mikey jamming together....
For more on Widespread Panic head on over to their official website.
Set Time: 6/17, What Stage, 8:30 PM - 11:30 PM
Thursday, June 7, 2007