“Make it scary”

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.

Ain’t life grand? Twenty-two years and 2,000 concerts into their careers, the surviving members of Widespread Panic are still going strong.

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.”

Panic-ing for a good cause

by Stuart Gaines

For almost a decade now, an Asheville-based fan organization has managed to bring something home from a Widespread Panic tour they actually want to brag to mama about.

Panic Fans for Food (PF3), founded by longtime fan Josh Stack, sets up collection centers outside shows coast-to-coast, yielding cash donations and nonperishable food, with all donations benefiting the host city’s food bank.

“In the time they’ve been in operation, they’ve come up with like $66,000 in donations and 12 tons of food,” Panic vocalist John Bell tells Xpress. “Josh had an inspiration, and he went with it. I’m really proud of them, and happy for the good stuff they do.”

The Halloween food drive will be hosted at the Bier Garden on Wednesday, Oct. 31, from 3 p.m. until show time. A costume contest with prizes will be held, and all donations benefit MANNA FoodBank. In addition to the usual nonperishables, potted meats and baby food are especially needed. Collection bins will also be outside the Civic Center.

 

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)

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