Widespread Panic. In an ordinary context, those words evoke the ruinous aftermath of a natural disaster — or, these days, perhaps the growing concern over the approach of the millennium and its joined-at-the-hip twin, the Y2K bug. Still, these two words have another meaning — an extraordinary musical intent — which brings with it a pure, honest sound and an army of fiercely loyal fans.
The Athens, Ga.-based band, Widespread Panic definitely aims to please.
Musical collaboration among band members dates back to 1982, when rhythm guitarist and vocalist John Bell met lead guitarist Mike “Panic” Houser at the University of Georgia. Two years later, bassist Dave Schools joined the loosely formed group, followed by drummer Todd Nance. The addition of percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz further boosted the band’s rhythmic force, and textured perfection was achieved with the arrival of keyboard player John “JoJo” Hermann.
Today’s Widespread Panic boasts a distinctive sound — a sometimes jazz-inflected blend of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B that the group often uses to cover tunes by such artists as the Talking Heads, Jerry Joseph, Neil Young, The Doors and Bloodkin. The band’s own original music arises from a mysterious place not found on any map. Hermann calls his own compositions “Professor Longhair tunes regenerated,” given their complex use of chords and rhythms mixed with a good-time, New Orleans-flavored boogie.
The audience is a vital element of the live Panic experience, as fans draw on the band’s energy and return it with unmistakable enthusiasm. Any fan will tell you that being at a Widespread Panic show is as much about being part of the show as being at it.
Widespread Panic holds a unique, Dead-like relationship with its fans — but updated for the ’90s: They utilize the Internet in maintaining dialogue with fans, even posting blow-by-blow “journals” detailing how their CDs came to be recorded.
“The band feels lucky that the fans have made such good impressions on officials in various cities,” notes Hermann, citing last spring’s free CD-release party held in downtown Athens — which attracted upward of 100,000 fans to the small city. And, unlike many groups who strictly forbid unauthorized taping of their concerts, Hermann emphasizes that the band is grateful for the fans who tape their shows, because they’re instrumental in spreading the music around.
Playing well over 100 shows a year could wear on a band’s creative energy, but Hermann points out that the fresh improvisation during every show and band members’ collective efforts to take the music to ever-higher levels keep Widespread Panic’s creative forces from becoming jaded. “There’s a certain amount of mind-reading that goes on when we’re on stage …. [because we’re] so used to playing together,” notes Hermann, explaining the band’s seemingly effortless musical communication.
Widespread Panic has released six albums with Capricorn Records, each one a distinct showcase of the group’s collective, well-honed artistry. Most recently, Light Fuse Get Away (1998) became Widespread Panic’s first live commercial recording. Their next Capricorn release is expected to hit record stores on July 27; the new disc features such diverse guest artists as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Colin Butler from Big Ass Truck, and Dottie Peoples — an Atlanta gospel singer. When asked about his favorite tune from the new release, Hermann mysteriously comments that there’s one song on the new album “about John Boy” [Walton, we presume] that “always makes me cry.” Eager fans must await that fateful July day, though, to comprehend the source of Hermann’s emotional crisis.
Widespread Panic shows usually run upward of three hours — and, to hear die-hard fans tell it, invariably leave audiences limp, awestruck and counting the days until the next concert. No matter where the road takes Widespread Panic, the essentials never change.