Belly Up Aspen becomes the Panic Room |

Belly Up Aspen becomes the Panic Room

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Eden BatkiWidespread Panic in acoustic mode: From left, Jimmy Herring, Jojo Hermann, Sunny Ortiz, Todd Nance, Dave Schools and John Bell.

ASPEN – In August 1999, Widespread Panic played the Albani Music Club in the Swiss resort of Winterthur. Logistically, the club wasn’t exactly hospitable to the six-piece rock band from Georgia. Guitarist Michael Houser’s amp sat on the end of the bar; the speaker for keyboardist Jojo Hermann’s organ was set up on top of a cigarette machine.Widespread Panic will spend this weekend in comparably tight quarters. Aspen’s Belly Up fits 450; it will be, by the recollection of Dave Schools, the band’s bassist, the smallest room the band has played since Winterthur. And this isn’t a matter of close comparisons. Panic generally plays in arenas and amphitheaters; they hold the record for most sold-out shows – 35 – at Red Rocks, which has a capacity of about 9,500.Michael Goldberg, owner of Belly Up, expresses no concerns about the suitability of the club for the shows, which sold out minutes after going on sale in early November. “It’s just another show,” Goldberg said. “They have a lot of gear – an upright piano that’s hard to carry in. But we have 10 people to carry it down. And there will be a lot of food. But aside from load-in, it’s just another show. An exciting show. It’ll be interesting.”Both Schools and Herman have played Belly Up in side projects. Schools, who has appeared there several times as a member of Stockholm Syndrome, and returned this past December with the Mickey Hart Band, has become a fan of Belly Up. He was unworried about the prospect of cramming Widespread Panic – band members, equipment, rabid fans, heightened expectations – into the club. “This is extremely intimate and very well laid out,” Schools said at Belly Up, a few hours before the Mickey Hart Band gig. “And they made the nice decision to invest in a great sound system. Even a loud band can come here and sound good.”In addition to the venue size, the Belly Up shows are notable for being a farewell of sorts. After Sunday night’s show, Widespread Panic, known for its ambitious touring schedule, goes on hiatus for the rest of 2012, and members haven’t announced concrete plans for what follows. It will be the band’s second extended break from touring; they took off all of 2004, not long after original lead guitarist Houser died, of pancreatic cancer.”We don’t know how long the break will be. Certainly not forever,” Schools said. “But it will be a chance for people to see their kids graduate high school, to get married, run a wellness center. Time to recharge.”••••Widespread Panic doesn’t figure to test the full capacity of Belly Up’s sound system. This weekend’s shows are part of the Wood Tour, which has the band playing entirely on acoustic instruments – no screaming electric guitars, no roaring organ, presumably a downshift in the volume of the drums. The tour, which covers 11 shows and four cities, is the first time the band has gone fully acoustic, and for Schools at least, this seems a bigger challenge than moving into a relatively tiny room, and more interesting than taking an extended break from performing.”What’s really exciting me about it is, it’s a chance to reboot ourselves,” said Schools, whose hiatus will be largely taken up with other music projects, including Stockholm Syndrome and the Mickey Hart Band. “When you go acoustic you lose things like the volume, distortion, all the things you can fall back on as a big rock band. When you distill it down to the basic elements, every note is important. Everything counts; nothing’s hidden. It’s building from the bottom up and a chance to rebuild the old.”Widespread Panic’s first gig, at a 1985 party at an A-frame house in the college town of Athens, Ga., was somewhat primitive. Instruments and microphones were held together in various inventive ways. The band cut out the bottoms of soup cans to make lights so the music could be accompanied by a light show. John Bell, the band’s lead singer, had acoustic six- and 12-string guitars. But it wasn’t an acoustic gig; Houser played his electric Telecaster guitar.In 1996, the band made its first effort to play acoustic. But the Sit & Ski Tour, which hit ski towns in the Rocky Mountains – and stopped for two shows in Aspen, at the Wheeler Opera House – became half-hearted attempts to go unplugged. “We called it the Acoustic My Ass Tour,” recalled Schools, who has a sharp recollection for details from two-plus decades of touring. “Mikey played half the set on his acoustic before saying, ‘Fuck this, I’m playing electric.’ I played electric bass turned way down. Inasmuch as attempting to play acoustic, it was not successful. But it furthered our love of playing Colorado. It really helped cement a special bond.”Panic has played acoustic sets here and there; an acoustic set from November 2003, in Myrtle Beach, N.C., was turned into the outstanding live album, “ber-Cobra” – “the only album of ours Rolling Stone liked,” Schools noted. But the band never toured as an acoustic act.The Wood Tour is the real thing, an attempt to add something substantial to Panic’s skill set. There are no speakers on stage. On this past fall’s tour, the band spent time every day rehearsing on acoustic instruments. Jimmy Herring, who took over as the band’s lead guitarist in late 2006, is having former Denver guitar-maker Scott Baxendale build him an acoustic guitar, specifically geared for the tour. Herman is toting around the upright piano – a bulky pain, but a real asset for making acoustic rock ‘n’ roll.”And I’ve worked really hard to augment an acoustic bass that will really sound good, really sound wooden,” Schools, who has lived in California’s Sonoma County for four years, said. “I won’t play a stand-up bass because, frankly, I can’t. I won’t inflict that on people.”We’re letting our imaginations run wild. It will be alien. Any kind of change can be tough. But we’re looking forward to something different.”••••The vast majority of music that David Bromberg plays is acoustic; the guitarist fits comfortably in the folk-blues realm where drums and electric bass are generally absent. So it struck me when, in an interview in December, Bromberg told me how enormously impressed he was with Widespread Panic’s rhythm section. Bromberg, who sat in with Panic over New Years Eve of 2010-’11 in Denver, called the rhythm section of bassist Schools, drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Sunny Ortiz the best in rock. It’s an assessment I agree with: Widespread Panic aren’t just jam monsters; they are a groove machine.But in addition the deep rhythms, the extended instrumental Southern-rock excursions, John Bell’s gritty voice, and a repertoire that draws from 11 albums of original songs and covers of Dr. John, Talking Heads, Stevie Wonder, Traffic, James Taylor and many others, the band’s popularity stems from being fan-friendly.”We’re always trying to make it easy on the fans,” Schools said. “I know it doesn’t always seem that way. But we filter every decision through, What will make it enjoyable to the fans? Why do we continue to play Red Rocks when most bands would have moved to Fiddler’s Green? Because everyone loves Red Rocks.”Panic’s fan-friendliness came into question when the price – $350 for general admission, more for reserved seats – for the Belly Up shows was announced. Among those who raised an eyebrow was Schools.”I was shocked,” he said. “I believe the way it was put to us was the price would be high, because of the small venue. The man-of-the-people in my head was thinking, Wow, that’s a little weird. But it is what it is. And there are three shows in Denver” – which took place last week, and cost in the $60 range. “So it’s not the end of the line. We tried every trick in the book to cut the scalpers out of the picture and make sure the people who wanted the tickets the most got them.”••••Staying home and listening to the records isn’t much of a substitute. Widespread Panic is one of those Grateful Dead-influenced bands who stress the live performance. Songs take on a different energy each time they’re played; each setlist is unique. And Panic has the added attraction of regularly having guests join them onstage, from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to Warren Haynes, DJ Logic to G. Love.As a recording act, Panic has been in a slide. Their first album, 1988’s “Space Wrangler,” is much loved by fans, and they seemed to hit an artistic high point with 1999’s “‘Til the Medicine Takes,” an ambitious effort which featured guest singers, a turntablist and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Since then, their studio albums have gotten increasingly ordinary.Schools notes that the band has varied the approach to studio recordings in recent years, but he seems to acknowledge that it hasn’t resulted in great albums. “There’s a new paradigm in the music industry and I don’t know if making records is the way to go,” he said. “It’s like back in the ’60s, when the market is for just one song. Which is a boon for bands – you don’t need a huge budget to make a whole album.”We’ve always been one of those bands – we’re not setting out to make ‘Dark Side of the Moon.’ I wish we had the time and the artistic intention to.”It hasn’t stopped Panic from becoming a huge draw as a touring band. Fans keep flocking to their shows; Panic has been one of the top-grossing concerts acts for over a decade and their popularity hasn’t begun to wane. When they played Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival, in 2005 and 2008, the festival was extended by a day each time to accommodate two-night stands by Panic, which is unprecedented for the festival. Their appearance in 2008 led to record attendance over the weekend.Still, Schools says that it has been “tough to be a Panic fan.” In the early ’00s, the band was really hitting its stride, he said, when Houser, a fan favorite whose nickname, Panic, was the source of the band name, became sick, then died. His first replacement, George McConnell, lasted a relatively short time before being replaced by Herring. Now the band has returned to top form, only to be headed for the sidelines again.”It’s like your team wins the World Series, then goes into rebuilding mode,” Schools said. “I feel like we’ve finally gotten to the point with Jimmy where it feels like it used to. I’m picking up the same old energy that I missed. I almost forgot it existed – that stagecoach careening down the mountainside that we’re known


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