On Saturday, the hardest-working band in rock and roll brings its show to Asheville to wrap up a spring tour.
Despite this being Widespread Panic’s first tour since taking an unprecedented 15-month hiatus, Athens’ original road warriors, who spend half the year burning the asphalt, are still ranked among the top-50-grossing touring acts.
The accomplishment is more impressive, of course, when you consider that the group attracts followers without substantial radio play, TV exposure or retail-store promotion. Boasting a history of 100-plus shows a year for 18 years, Panic is more than an integral part of the modern music scene — it is its own subculture.
But in the beginning, it was just for kicks when an unemployed friend started helping the band behind the scenes. This casual favor turned into a full-time, pivotal job: A well-delivered, crowd-inspiring Panic show is no accident — and much of its success can be attributed to a certain talented, logistically minded roadie. The Allman Brothers leaned on Twiggs, the Grateful Dead followed Sharkfin’s lead, and Widespread Panic has flourished with the help of Garrie Vereen.
Vereen plays multiple roles as a manager, organizer, coordinator, facilitator, and friend. Many would envy the surface perks of roadie life: birthday parties thrown by your band; sitting in at the Classic Center in Athens as someone creates a few percussive tracks toward a new CD; or getting first look at the highly anticipated set list before a show. But the lasting benefit of any job is the respect you garner. A good friend of mine sports a bumper sticker proclaiming “Garrie Vereen for President” — and the sentiment is seconded by another Mountain Xpress employee, who labels Vereen, like Warren Haynes, one of the nicest guys in the industry.
I caught up with the veteran roadie shortly before his local stop.
Mountain Xpress: “What event was most significant in introducing you to the roadie life?”
Garrie Vereen: “I moved to Athens, Ga., in 1984, met [lead singer] John Bell shortly after, saw them play at the Uptown Lounge. I started traveling as an employee in July 1991 … selling T-shirts, and then graduated to learning to set up keyboards from [early WSP and Rolling Stones band member] T. Lavitz.”
MX: “Describe the scene in 1991 — where was the band musically at that time?”
GV: “We had one van and one truck. … 1991 was a very exciting time because we had just signed a contract with Capricorn Records, our first major label. From there, hints of stardom moved into our dreams.”
MX: “When you arrive in Asheville after a show in Louisville, Ky. (as you will on this tour), describe a projected ‘day in the life of Garrie Vereen.'”
GV: “[On] a typical day, the lighting crew gets started around 8 a.m., and spends about two-to-three hours setting up the lights. The audio guys come in for a couple of hours after that; then I usually hit the scene around 10 or 12. From the band’s standpoint … starting with the lights to the PA being set in the air, we set the risers, the guitar amps down across the front, the keyboards and then finally, the drums. Everything is in place by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. The band shows up around 4 to 4:30 to have a sound check … [there’s a] dinner break, then prep for the set list for the evening.
“After the show, we can get everything put away in two-to-three hours, according to the experience of the crew. From the stage to the truck … 20-to-30 people help move everything out. IATSE Theatrical Workers Union, and in some cases, the local civic center employees, help out with this process. A typical day is 14-to-16 hours.”
MX: “The band just took its first break in more than 18 years … what did you do during your time off?”
GV: “I helped out with [WSP drummer] Todd Nance’s band Barbara Cue. I traveled to Orlando for John Bell’s Hannah Benefit, which benefits kids with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. In the event’s sixth year, it hit the million-dollar profit mark, which I am very proud to be a part of. I also relocated my family from 30 miles outside of Athens, Ga., to more of Athens proper. That was a pretty long project, but very rewarding.”
MX: “Have you added any technical additions to the show?”
GV: “Things have changed around, but not drastically … . As in each year in the springtime, [there’s] a little new look with the lighting. Audio is pretty straightforward with Line Array: It’s a new technology that incorporates several speakers that sound like one large speaker. They are hung up and suspended in the air.”
MX: “Here’s my Dan Rather question: Since the passing of the late, great [WSP lead guitarist] Michael Houser, how do you see the band musically?”
GV: “[New lead singer] George [McConnell] is doing new and exciting things, and is bringing his own unique style to the band, as well.
“[But] when Mikey passed, he was given six-to-nine months to live, and he was gone in five. There was so much going on with CD-release and contractual obligations that the band did not have a chance to grieve. … Personally, I did not realize the unique sound he made until he was gone.”
Widespread Panic plays a sold-out show at 8 p.m. at the Asheville Civic Center on Saturday, May 7. Call 259-5544 for more information.