Widespread Panic is something of an anomaly in the music world. Since forming in Athens, Ga., in 1985, the group has performed more than 2,000 concerts, released nine studio albums (with a 10th slated for release in early 2008) and has consistently ranked as one of the top-grossing concert acts in the country. Yet the band has never managed to break into the mainstream, with their chart success limited to regional and college radio.
But Widespread Panic has long been fan favorites, selling out a record 23 shows at Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver and helping to turn fledging music festivals like Bonnaroo into national events.
The group has had surprising longevity, surviving not only the standard interpersonal drama that comes with such a long history, but also the loss of founding member Michael Houser in 2002.
In the years since Houser’s death, the band has at times struggled to keep its momentum. But with the addition of guitarist Jimmy Herring last year, the group seems to be slowly regaining its former glory.
Before the band’s sold-out Halloween show at the Asheville Civic Center, Xpress chatted with founding vocalist John Bell.
Xpress: You’ve played to packed venues all across the country, and your Halloween shows are huge draws. How did Asheville get the nod for this year’s show?
John Bell: We take our Halloweens pretty seriously [laughs]. The band’s main concern is the place you play. Like [past venues] New York City or Vegas or New Orleans—that’s as important as anything. There’s the date, there’s the band, there’s the kids that are ready to have a good time. You want it to be in a really hip spot. So we kept mulling it over, and Asheville was just like “OK.”
How do you go about picking your Halloween cover tunes?
Usually there’s some kind of theme to the stage. Sometimes, some of the songs fit into that world. When we were up in New York, we did a bunch of tunes that were NYC-related like “On Broadway” and a Ramones tune. And then just something ridiculous like the theme from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A lot of times [we] move for things that are a little on the heavy side or spooky side. One great thing about it is that you know it’s Halloween, so there’s a sense of make-believe and pretend. Sometimes we can visit some classic songs that we wouldn’t necessarily play otherwise, because they’re so classic it’s almost best to leave it alone.
Would an example of that be your covers of “Joe’s Garage” or “Band on the Run” [from previous Halloween performances]?
Well, “Band on the Run” was just ridiculous. In the middle of the song, it’s like, “Why are we doing this?” Awww, Paul McCartney. We meant to do a Lennon song [and] make it scary.
Were you proud of everybody for staying out of trouble in April? [With mountains of pre-show hype about their performance in their hometown of Athens—much of which focused on the criminal underbelly of the jam-band scene—only a handful of arrests took place at the show despite a ramped-up police presence.]
You know, it didn’t surprise me that there wasn’t much, if any, trouble. As far as I can tell, folks are there to kick up their heels, dance to the music, celebrate with friends, and you know it’s a very healthy way to spend your time. For the most part, the folks that come out are very good-natured kids. And they’re not just kids, they’re anywhere from high-school age on to professional folks into their 50s that either just discovered Widespread Panic as the kind of music they used to listen to or have been with us since the beginning.
[Stuart Gaines is a freelance writer and former Xpress music columnist.]
who: Widespread Panic
what: Legendary jam band rocks Halloween night
where: Asheville Civic Center
when: Wednesday, Oct. 31 (8 p.m. Tickets sold out, and expect to pay at least $100 to scalpers)