Panic’s path from Athens to Aspen
August 24, 2005
Carbondale’s defunct Ship of Fools is the sort of venue, small and separated by at least six degrees from the big time, that Dave Schools, John Bell and Mike Houser expected to play. The three aspiring musicians and University of Georgia students had no big rock ‘n’ roll fantasies to speak of when they met in the mid-’80s.
“I never even could have imagined I would pay my phone bill playing music, much less my rent,” said Schools, a bassist and native of Richmond, Va. “We just planned to have fun.”So while Schools and his mates could easily have envisioned, back in their college days, a gig at Ship of Fools, they could hardly have imagined the scene that surrounded the bar in December 2003. A shady promoter had spread word that Widespread Panic, the band Schools had formed with Bell and Houser in Athens, Ga., was going to play a surprise gig there. Fans from as far away as Utah queued up along Main Street, waiting for a show that was never going to happen. The band went to the extreme measure of posting a notice on its website, denying the rumor, to keep hundreds more Panic fanatics from swarming Carbondale.This has been Widespread Panic’s journey: from a group of college kids playing Georgia bars, frat houses and living rooms to a band that needs to fend off its fans from bad rumors. Even regularly scheduled shows at big venues can be a tough ticket; when Panic emerged from a 14-month hiatus last spring with three shows at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, some 90,000 ticket requests went unfilled. The band – keyboardist John “Jojo” Hermann, drummer Todd Nance, percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz and guitarist George McConnell, who replaced the late Houser in 2002, plus Schools and lead singer Bell – is routinely among the top-20 highest-grossing touring acts, keeping company with bands that are far better known in the mainstream. When tickets went on sale for the three-night Red Rocks stand they play every June, they sold out in 12 minutes.When Widespread Panic plays Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival this week, its mere presence will alter the event. The festival has been expanded, from four to five days, to accommodate a two-night stand (Thursday and Friday, Sept. 1-2) by Panic, a condition insisted on by the band. It is the first multi-show appearance by a main-stage act in Jazz Aspen’s 15 years. The shows are expected to draw not only record attendance, but enhanced scrutiny by organizers and local officials (see page 29). It is Jazz Aspen’s biggest step yet away from its origins as an intimate, jazz-oriented organization toward becoming a major player in the concert world.
Widespread Panic sells lots of tickets, but equally impressive is the sense of loyalty, even duty, of the band’s fans. Hordes of Spreadheads follow the band from city to city, hoping to catch the show when the stars align and the music, an open-ended take on Southern boogie-rock, is at its explosive best. Which means the band is expected, unlike Bruce Springsteen or Sting or Kenny Chesney, to play a markedly different show each night.”I don’t think it creates a responsibility,” said Schools in June, from his home in Athens, about the uncommon dedication of the band’s followers. “What it creates is a challenge. When people see more than one show, we make sure to juggle the set list. It’s definitely pleasing to know people want to see more than one show, and not just see what we have to offer on this particular tour.”In this unusual dynamic between band and fans, Schools said that the fans are more than passive listeners. “We’ve been lucky that our audience has become the seventh member of the band. They like to be challenged, so they have a pretty big impact on our performance each night. There’s a palpable sense of participatory energy. When all the elements line up – all the band members can hear each other and feel what the audience is up to – they egg us on to this indefinable energy.”
No one has the perspective on the exchange between Widespread Panic and its fans that George McConnell has. A Mississippi native, McConnell played with Jojo Hermann in Beanland, based in the college town of Oxford, Miss., in the late ’80s. McConnell and Hermann would often take a road trip to Atlanta to see Widespread at the Cotton Club. Beanland soon became a frequent opening act for Widespread, until Hermann was invited to join Panic. A decade later, when Houser became ill with pancreatic cancer, McConnell got the call to join Hermann in Widespread. One of the signatures of Widespread Panic, like virtually all of their fellow jam bands, is the tendency to stretch a song with lengthy, improvised passages. “Live from Myrtle Beach,” the band’s most recent release, has just 11 songs on two CDs, with tracks clocking up to 23 minutes.But what hooked McConnell in his days as a fan was the songs. Though the band’s earliest gigs leaned heavily on extended versions of Grateful Dead and classic rock tunes, when Panic made its first CD, 1988’s “Space Wrangler,” the songs were tight. The album had a vaguely mainstream feel in catchy songs like “Coconut” and “Porch Song.””When ‘Space Wrangler’ came out, I was real impressed with the song-writing. And the thought that was put into the songs,” said McConnell, who also listened extensively to bootlegged tapes of Panic concerts, which a Mississippi friend recorded. “To me, it always comes down to good songs. I’m a guitar player and a big fan of guitar-playing. But noodling only goes so far.”
“We all agree that songs are the kernel of truth in the midst of the chaos,” said Schools.Among the band’s writing strengths is that every member of the band contributes songs. Another is their willingness to plumb the full range of experience. Panic draws more from the deep, dark blues than it does from life’s rays of sunshine. John Bell’s gruff, strong voice is the ideal vehicle for songs like “Dyin’ Man” and “All Time Low,” which don’t make a joke of their titles. And Panic never stoops to the hippie drivel lyrics that causes some to cringe at the phrase “jam band.””It’s not a matter of embracing darker emotions,” said Schools. “It’s that the whole spectrum of the human emotional experience comes through all of us. It’s not always puppy dogs and rainbows. Everyone falls in love and everyone has a heartbreak.”
Widespread Panic has also been uncommonly adept at nailing its songs on tape. Some bands from the jam realm are strangers to the studio. Either they avoid it, following in the footsteps of the Dead and the Allman Brothers. Or they just aren’t good there, unable to capture the magic when they are separated from a live crowd and confined by four walls.Widespread, however, has embraced the studio setting. They have released eight studio CDs between 1988 and 2003, when they released “Ball.” Their current two-plus-year studio drought can be chalked up more to their hiatus than to avoidance; they are scheduled to return to the studio in January.Moreover, on the best of their CDs, like “Ain’t Life Grand” and “‘Til the Medicine Takes,” both from the ’90s, the band truly uses the studio. If the audience is the seventh member of Panic, then John Keane, who has produced albums by REM, the Indigo Girls and Cowboy Junkies, is the eighth. Keane has had a hand in producing virtually every Widespread recording. So on “‘Til the Medicine Takes,” their most ambitious and probably best effort, there are turntables, strings and contributions from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Even the package design, featuring work by Atlanta artist Flournoy Holmes, speaks of an effort to make a polished product.”We’ve been lucky to work with John Keane and Johnny Sandlin,” another producer on “Space Wrangler,” said Schools. “They’ve had a lot of effect in making the studio stuff better. “John Keane sees the potential of the studio. If you want to make a live record, record it onstage.”
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Maybe the most remarkable aspect of Widespread Panic’s rise out of Athens is that it continues. The kids who latched on at the beginning have aged 15 or more years, but the band, at least in terms of being a concert draw, is still gaining momentum. In 1999, the band extended its annual June Red Rocks visit to three days; the next year, band members began closing their summer with a two-night stand in Colorado. Ticket sales still haven’t lagged.
Yet, the road hasn’t been perfectly smooth. The biggest bump was the death of Houser – “Mikey” to fans and bandmates – whose gentle demeanor seemed a necessary ballast for the band. It became fairly clear that, even if Houser didn’t beat the cancer he was diagnosed with in 2001, the band would survive. Not only was there the standard, sincere claim that “Mikey would’ve wanted us to carry on,” but also Houser and the band demonstrated their commitment to keeping Panic intact by continuing to tour – and bringing along McConnell as a spare guitarist in case Houser got too sick to perform. “Mikey wanted to tour, not sit at home,” said McConnell. On July 3, 2002, at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, Panic played its first show ever without Houser. The band finished out the tour with McConnell on guitar and saxophonist Randall Bramblett, a longtime associate, filling in any empty spaces.The other big question mark in the band’s existence was self-imposed. In the middle of 2003, Widespread announced they would be taking a break, of uncertain duration, from all group activity. They kept the fans reasonably content with a series of intriguing, live CD releases: “Über-Cobra” was the first all-acoustic recording; “Jackassolantern” was a compilation of cover tunes – from Nelly’s “Hot in Here” to Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” to a Doors medley – taken from past Halloween shows. Some members busied themselves with side projects: Hermann played in his Smiling Assassins with members of the North Mississippi Allstars; Nance played guitar and sang in his Barbara Cue. Schools, who claims not to have had a break, was most ambitious, touring with Stockholm Syndrome and J. Mascis & the Fog. McConnell, who had ski-bummed in Snowmass Village in the early ’80s, lived most of the time in Telluride, and did plenty of hiking in the Colorado River Basin.
The hiatus might have made the fans edgy, but the band had little doubt about their eventual return. “Really, the purpose was to stop and have a breather for the first time in 15 years,” said Schools. “We’d only taken months off from touring and usually those months were spent making a record. Everyone had their own greater reasons for the break – to spend time with family, to rest. But the ultimate goal was to return refreshed, reinvigorated.”If there were any questions about the effectiveness of the break, they were answered quickly. On March 24, at Atlanta’s Fox Theater, Panic returned.”I could feel it onstage, everybody felt glad to be there,” said Schools. “It was an overwhelming feeling of wanting to be there.” Just as gratifying was reconnecting with the fans. “It was indescribable. I knew we’d be pumped, but you can’t really prepare for that seventh member to reappear. It was like getting back on a bucking bronco. It was fulfilling.”Widespread Panic’s fans seem to get their satisfaction from the honest, down-to-earth way the band has conducted itself. If it weren’t for the fact that there were so many of them now, the fans could almost envision Widespread playing at Ship of Fools, or any nondescript bar. That was the quality that attracted McConnell in the first place.
“They exploded and got so big. They outgrew the bars and got to the 1,000-seat theaters real quickly,” he said. “But they were all super nice, very unegotistical. And at that time, it wasn’t like that. It was MTV, and everybody was trying to get on that bandwagon. So it was refreshing about Widespread Panic that they didn’t care about that rock-star crap. They played; that’s what they did.”And they have kept on playing. This year’s schedule includes 95 dates through the end of October. Panic plays long shows. They continue to write new material and record new albums. They come to play and aim to please.”Being a fan of the band,” said McConnell, “it’s an audience that’s come for honesty and real music. They can smell a fake from a mile away. It’s honest and real to them – not just the music, but the songs. And that’s what keeps them coming back.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org