Ready to believe

Just like people, music has a soul. It’s what makes us enjoy what we hear.

And some of us can take this simple theory and make a life out of it. What began as an adventure for six young men in Athens, Ga., known as Widespread Panic has become a way of life for legions of fans across the country.

Panic, as fans know them, have been together since 1984. They’ve spent much of that time on the road, perfecting their live act: “You have to see it to believe it,” my own mother said after attending her first Panic show last summer.

As in all successful relationships, the bond between Panic and its fans rests on trust. When the music is at its best, a show can take on its own personality — think of great theater, in which opposing characters and plot twists lend a sense of drama and suspense.

But as local fan Clare Eleazer says, “Half the fun for me at Panic is seeing the smiling faces of all my friends who love being there as much as I do,” and she’s not alone. The music is what brings people to the shows — the friendships are what keep them coming back.

At the heart of Panic is a brotherhood: “You can call us anything you like, give a label to our sound, compare us to other bands — but the truth of our being is that we are a band in the truest sense, and that in itself makes our songs unique,” lead singer/guitarist John Bell once said. “I have been influenced by every song I’ve ever heard, but no musical influence is stronger inside my heart than my relationship with the boys in the band.”

The music of Widespread Panic means something different to almost everyone who hears it. There’s no formula ruling their sound — if there were, it would have faded long ago. But, lest we forget, the people making the music are human — and with that come the parts of life that are hard to understand. When unofficial news started circulating earlier this month about the failing health of lead guitarist Michael Houser, who is rumored to be battling pancreatic cancer, the band’s future could only be guessed at. As a founding member and a crucial component of the group’s sound — the band takes its very identity from Houser’s old nickname, Panic — the guitarist, it seems, could hardly be replaced. But if the rumors are true, a stand-in may be waiting in the wings.

No formal announcements about Houser’s health or his future with Panic have been issued. The band’s bassist, Dave Schools, once told a reporter: “We enjoy hanging out with each other and playing. It’s like a brotherhood of fun. Keeping that spirit alive is what’s important to us.” Meanwhile, as always, the band plays on: Look for their new disc, Live in the Classic City, on June 11.

Panic fans for food

In an effort to promote hunger awareness, Panic Fans for Food are partnering with SunTribe and Manna Food Bank to sponsor a food drive on Sunday April 21 at the Asheville Civic Center in the hours leading up to Widespread Panic’s performance. In just over two years, the organization has raised more than $10,000 in donations and more than five tons of food, donating the proceeds to those communities hosting the concerts. For details, log onto www.panicfansforfood.org.

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