McConnell walkin’ in big shoes
When Widespread Panic guitarist Michael Houser bowed out of the band in the summer of 2002 because of pancreatic cancer, no one was more stunned to see George McConnell take his place than George McConnell.With Houser having been diagnosed with the illness, the other band members asked McConnell to accompany them on their summer tour as a pinch guitarist. But Houser was still playing strong in late June. So McConnell and Randall Bramblett, a saxophonist who was also conscripted for emergency duty, made sporadic appearances throughout the early summer.”We’d only come out once every three or four nights. People with the band thought I was with the monitor crew or the local union,” said McConnell, a Snowmass Village resident for a year who had given up touring to open Django’s Guitars in Oxford, Miss.But on July 2, following a show in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the band’s road manager informed McConnell that Houser’s condition had deteriorated and McConnell would be the sole lead guitarist the next day, at Milwaukee’s Summerfest.”I was more shocked than any of the audience when I walked out there,” said the 35-year-old McConnell. “Mikey played so great at Red Rocks and Bonnaroo” a few days earlier.McConnell seemed a fairly obvious choice to fill in for Houser, who died in August 2002. Beanland, a Mississippi band he founded with Widespread Panic keyboardist John “Jojo” Hermann, opened numerous early shows for the Georgia-based Panic. He had sat in with Panic a handful of times over the years. Still, as he had concentrated on Beanland and his next band, Kudzu Kings, he didn’t know how to play many of Widespread’s songs. “So when the trial by fire happened, I was so unprepared for it,” he said.Compounding his anxiety was the specter of the notoriously loyal Panic fans. “I could imagine how shocked the fans were: ‘This clown doesn’t know the songs,'” he said. But McConnell found that that loyalty extended to whomever the band chose to succeed Houser. As McConnell finished the summer 2002 tour, playing for huge crowds at such venues as the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., and Fiddler’s Green in suburban Denver, he felt the fans’ embrace.”They’re very understanding,” he said. “They knew a lot about the inner workings of the band, more than I did. The fans were sympathetic to what the band was going through. They understood how tough it was.”Joining Widespread was a reunion of sorts for McConnell. In the mid-’80s, he and Hermann formed Beanland in the college town of Oxford. At the same time, he was hearing of an Athens, Ga., group, Widespread Panic, that was taking a similar course: touring the South, extending its improvised jams, and encouraging fans to make bootleg tapes of shows. When a friend passed McConnell some early Panic tapes, he was curious.”Our band was doing the same thing,” said McConnell, who had spent 1982-83 ski-bumming in Snowmass Village, washing dishes at the on-mountain High Alpine restaurant, playing music at Blueberry’s and mixing cement in the summer. “We recorded each of our shows, sometimes on a boom box in the audience, so I was interested in what they did.”As the two bands crisscrossed the Southeast, they often joined forces, with Beanland opening shows for Widespread. Beanland played the CD release party in Nashville when Widespread released its first album for the Capricorn label – “Widespread Panic,” but commonly known as “Mom’s Kitchen” – in 1991. McConnell watched as Widespread took off.”They just exploded and got so big,” he said. “They outgrew the bars, couldn’t play them anymore. They got to the 1,000-seat theaters real quickly.”Beanland, meanwhile, was chasing its own success, trying to mix touring and college. “We’d play four nights, barely limp home on Sunday, and beg our professors for forgiveness on Monday,” he said. “We hardly ever got to see Widespread, unless they came real close. We were concentrating on getting our thing going.”After Beanland, then Kudzu Kings, failed to make it anywhere near the level of Widespread Panic, McConnell was ready to quit the road. He ran Django’s Guitars for a few years and had just shut it down when the call came from Widespread Panic about Houser’s condition.”It was just to come out and help,” he said. “Mikey wanted to tour, not sit at home. J.B. (Panic lead singer John Bell) and Jojo asked me to come along on tour. I said I’d crawl over broken glass for these guys. But I didn’t anticipate playing one song on my own.”McConnell has since become an integral part of the band. He played on the most recent studio album, “Ball,” and has been featured on two live releases.McConnell has been encouraged not to duplicate Houser’s playing but to find his own place.”Those were tough shoes to fill. And that wasn’t the idea,” bassist Dave Schools said. “We wanted someone to grow into his own in the band. We wanted someone to influence us, and someone we could influence. If not, that would have turned us into a tribute band of ourselves, and I can’t imagine a worse fate.”McConnell’s playing seems an especially key component on “Über-Cobra,” the band’s first live, acoustic release. And when Widespread returned from its 14-month hiatus in March, McConnell was a full member of the celebration.”To me, it was great,” he said. “We had rehearsed in Athens a few weeks, jammed on old songs, which had never been done before.”After the first day, it was like getting on the proverbial bicycle.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail is email@example.comThe lineupWidespread Panic plays at Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival at 6 p.m. today and Friday.Also on the main stage:Today: Johnny Clegg at 3:30 p.m., and Jerry Joseph & Friends at 2 p.m.Friday: Galactic at 3:30 p.m., and deSoL at 2 p.m.The Labor Day Festival runs through Monday at Snowmass Town Park. For full program details, see the listings in The Aspen Times or go to http://www.jazzaspen.org
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