Lying in the sun

Their lyrics cover everything from blue-collar angst to the merits of coconuts.

And their Southern-rock jams have covered this country like peach butter.

Widespread Panic vocalist/guitarist Michael Houser, who was born in Boone, spoke to Xpress from a hotel room in Austin recently, reflecting on his dark days B.P. (before Panic).

“I was a lost soul before Widespread Panic,” he declared, almost reverently. “I didn’t want to go to work in a factory. I felt sick every time I thought of my life in the future. I never really found anything that I could latch on to and say that’s what I wanted to do.”

Facing a series of dreary job interviews after graduation, Houser says he “felt … just lost. I felt that I was a moment away from tragedy, really.”

Then he found John Bell and Dave Schools; the three first performed as Widespread Panic in 1985. The way Houser tells it, it sounds like a religious conversion.

“I lost that [depressed] feeling. I had a purpose. I knew what I was going to do every day, and that was what I needed.”

And, not unlike an improvisational groove, “everything else came from that one instant of insight,” continues Houser. “It was a challenge, and that’s what I wanted.”

Furthermore, “everything good that has happened to me has come out of the band,” he claims (including, more than ten years ago meeting his wife at a Widespread Panic show). Soon after the light dawned for Widespread Panic, they were joined by drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo S. Ortiz. The band’s first disc, the beatific Space Wrangler (Landslide Records) came out in 1988, and was re-released by Capricorn in ’92. Around that time, the band added keyboardist John “Jo Jo” Hermann.

As the group’s lineup grew, so did the numbers of records sold — climbing into the millions.

“None of us ever wavered. We all had the same moment of clarity that I did — that this is what we wanted. … All of us love what we do,” Houser says proudly.

But the path to enlightenment often requires a little pruning. After its seven-album contract with Capricorn Records expired, the band formed its own Widespread Records — and, in May 2000, released its ninth disc, Another Joyous Occasion, an energetic concert album. This one captures the spirit of the band at its peak, letting you know why “Spreadheads” feel the way they do.

About his own concert experience, Houser says: “It’s fear and excitement and happiness all mixed up.”

Brian Sofer, who designs the band’s Web site, talks about trying to funnel the band’s soul on-line.

“I’ve been a fan for 10 years; that’s how I got the gig. I’m a target audience member. I try to do what I would like and what the fans would like at the same time. … That’s why we’re putting up these big, fat MP3s every week. Instead of some stupid clip, we’d rather have a chunk from a show. People are eating it up.

“We get tremendous traffic and had to shut a few doors [on the Web site] this week to upgrade. You don’t want to put anything up that is not worthy of this band,” he says.

Another worthy experiment for Widespread Panic was working with Christopher and Geoffrey Hanson of the independent film company Sweetwater Productions.

This summer, Sweetwater documented more than 250 hours of footage of Widespread’s latest tour, to be used as part of a feature movie, Scrapple.

“They were very unobtrusive — and yet they were there all the time,” Houser observes, saying he hopes “they’ll present an interpretation of what it’s like to be out [on-stage].”

With plenty to feel good about (including a new deal with a European record company for the band’s next studio album), Widespread Panic is growing. The fans keep coming — and making believers out of others.

Houser is appropriately grateful: “You can’t go out into a room of those fans,” he concludes, “and not want to do your very best.”

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