In their history, Widespread Panic have never had a video played on MTV or a song on mainstream radio, never signed to a major record label, and never had a single on the Top 200 chart. Their albums typically sell fewer than 200,000 copies each. Regardless of this statistical profile, however, the Athens, Georgia, jam band is among the leading touring bands in the United States, selling out venues wherever they go in record time. Like the Grateful Dead before them, Widespread Panic have built a devoted fan base the grassroots way—through relentless touring. Often compared to the band the Allman Brothers, they also have a strong presence on college campuses and on the Internet, having established a thriving online community.
Notoriously easygoing vocalist John Bell and guitarist Mike Houser started jamming together in 1982, while attending college in Athens. Bassist Dave Schools joined the duo in 1984, and drummer Todd Nance came on board two years later. Widespread Panic recorded their first single, “Coconut Image,” in 1986, shortly before percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz joined the group. Following the release of their 1988 debut album, Space Wrangler, on the independent Landslide label, they launched a tour that continued, more or less constantly, for the next several years. Because of their improvisational style and sound that is difficult to define, Widespread Panic have been labeled a “jam band.” The band is not crazy about that, or any other, label. “We usually try to get away from labels and clichés,” Bell said in an interview with Mike Snider of USA Today. Instead, he offers an explanation: “We work on improvisation. It’s like jazz in a rock ‘n’ roll format, but a little more primitive than jazz. It’s honest action and reaction.” Washington Post critic Carrie Nieman described the band’s sound: “The Southern rock of Widespread Panic isn’t flawless. It’s gritty, unshaven and loud. But it’s this grit, combined with vocalist John Bell’s soulful interpretations, that makes it work.”
Widespread Panic signed a record deal with the Capricorn label and subsequently released their self-titled sophomore album in 1991. Keyboardist John Hermann became the sixth and final addition to the group in 1992. They hit the road again, most notably as guests on the 1992 and 1993 H.O.R.D.E. music festival tours. H.O.R.D.E. exposed the group to a broader audience and fueled support for their 1994 release, Ain’t Life Grand. The album produced the minor hits “Airplane” and “Can’t Get High.” In 1995 Widespread Panic teamed up with legendary rocker and fellow Georgian Vic Chesnutt to record the album Nine High Pallet under the moniker Brute. The release of 1998’s double-live album, Light Fuse, Get Away, was celebrated by Widespread Panic fans, who generally prefer to see the band live. The album’s official release party, held in Athens, drew over 100,000 fans.
Widespread Panic released their last album on Capricorn Records, Til the Medicine Takes, in 1999. “The sound of Til the Medicine Takes reflects a broader palate from the band,” wrote critic Andrew Dansby of RollingStone.com. Indeed, guitarist Michael Houser and drummer Todd Nance relieved Bell of his vocal duties on the songs ‘The Waker” and “You’ll Be Fine,” respectively. The group also brought in some outside talent for the record. DJ Colin Butler from the group Big Ass Truck did some turntable mixing and scratching on the song “Dyin’ Man,” producer John Keane played mountain banjo on “The Waker,” the Dirty Dozen Brass Band lent some horns to “Christmas Katie,” and singers Dottie Peoples and Anne Richmond Boston added their voices to six tracks on the album. Despite all the well-intentioned effort, though, Washington Post critic Geoffrey Himes felt the recording fell short. He credited the band for their live shows and superb playing ability, but cited one major flaw of the band: “Live music is all about playing, while recorded music is all about songs,” he wrote. “They can’t seem to write a memorable song.” Their Capricorn contract expired and Widespread Panic released their next album, Another Joyous Occasion, on their own Widespread record label. Their subsequent releases, Don’t Tell the Band and Live in the Classic City, have been released in conjunction with the Sanctuary record label.
While they’ve released a steady string of studio recordings, Widespread Panic are most at home on tour. Constant touring started as a matter of necessity for the band, but life on the road suits the members well. “The only way we were going to be a band without
For the Record…
Members include John Bell, vocals; John Hermann, keyboards; Michael Houser (born on January 6, 1962; died on August 10, 2002, in Athens, GA), guitar, vocals; Todd Nance (joined group, c. 1986), drums; Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, percussion; Dave Schools (joined group, 1984), bass.
Group formed by John Bell and Mike Houser in Athens, GA, 1982; recorded debut single, “Coconut Image,” 1986; released debut LP, Space Wrangler, on the Landslide label, 1988; toured often, 1988-; released Wide-spread Panic on Capricorn, 1991; appeared on the H.O.R.D.E. music festival tour, 1992-93; released Everyday, 1993; released Ain’t Life Grand, 1994; teamed with Vic Chesnutt to release Nine High Pallet under the name Brute, 1995; released Bombs and Butterflies, 1997; released Light Fuse, Get Away, 1998; released Til the Medicine Takes, 1999; released An-other Joyous Occasion, 2000; released Don’t Tell the Band, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Sanctuary Records, 369 Lexington Ave., 6th floor, New York, NY 10017.Management —Brown Cat, Inc., 400 Foundry St., Athens, GA 30601.Website — Widespread Panic Official Web-site: http://www.widespreadpanic.com.
having to go out and get day jobs was to be out there touring,” Bell told Andrew Dansby of RollingStone.com. “And we had a sense of adventure. We liked piling into the car and going to another city.” The plan worked. With no support from radio or MTV, the band has built a broad and devoted fan base by touring relentlessly and by building a strong Internet community—literally reaching their fans where they live. The band enlists help from fans via the Internet to promote shows. And while other groups are in court fighting the sales of bootlegs, Widespread Panic offer free bootleg tapes of their own concerts. Fans need only send a blank tape and a return envelope. The band turned down an offer to tour with the Rolling Stones, concerned that fans would be disappointed by opening sets that would be shorter than the three-hour sets they usually play.
This type of grassroots marketing has built a fan base that is astoundingly passionate and dedicated—fans feel like they’re a thriving part of the group, not just ticket and record buyers. “I’m just very loyal to those guys because they are so loyal and committed to all of us,” one die-hard fan told Greg Jaffe of the Wall Street Journal. As a result, though their records typically sell well under 200,000 copies each, they are one of the best-selling live acts in America. In 120 shows during 1998, Widespread Panic earned more than such multiplatinum-selling, top-ten acts as Sheryl Crow and Smashing Pumpkins. Despite having played thousands of shows—more than 3,000 by 1998—the band members “believably insist they are in it for the fun,” according to writer Russ DeVault in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The band never plays the same set twice, and the musicians can be found before a show milling about in the crowd, nonchalantly chatting with fans and signing autographs. Bassist Schools, who gets nervous before big shows, told DeVault, “What a great way to make a living. It’s a natural high.”
The scene surrounding Widespread Panic concerts is reminiscent of the legendary Grateful Dead tours. Fans follow the band from town to town and gather before shows in venue parking lots for a massive pre-party. “Without the lot scene it would just be a concert,” one Panic fan told writer Robin A. Rothman of Rolling-Stone.com. “Really the culture of the whole thing is one of the biggest elements of the Widespread Panic tour experience. Most of the social interaction of the scene itself does take place in the parking lot.” While the scene has become something of an extended community over the years, the drug use and sales at the events cannot be denied. After 15 years of relentless touring, things got out of control only once at their concerts. During a series of three sold-out Panic shows in 2002, one woman died of an apparent overdose of the drug Ecstasy and approximately 200 people were arrested at Oak Mountain Amphitheater in Pelham, Alabama. Another fan was found dead of an apparent suicide after taking drugs in a nearby hotel room. The band defends local police efforts to control drug use and underage drinking at all Panic concerts. Few held the band responsible for the incident, including the police, the mother of the suicide victim, and the amphitheater’s owner, Tony Ruffino. “I’m for the band,” Ruffino told Rothman of RollingStone.com. “They’re unbelievable to work with. They’re really special people who try really hard to do the right thing.”
During the summer of 2002, the close-knit community of Panic fans was saddened to hear of Houser’s death on August 10 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. A message from Houser’s family posted on the band’s website declares that Houser would have wanted the band to continue without him: “Michael would be absolutely devastated if the band did not continue as Widespread Panic. He, and all of them, have worked for 20 years to make it what it is today. They have a history, a legacy, and a loyal fan following that will stick with them through this transition.”
Space Wrangler, Landslide, 1988.
Widespread Panic, Capricorn, 1991.
Everyday, Capricorn, 1993.
Ain’t Life Grand, Capricorn, 1994.
Nine High Pallet (as Brute, with Vic Chesnutt), 1995.
Bombs and Butterflies, Capricorn, 1997.
Light Fuse, Get Away, Capricorn, 1998.
Til the Medicine Takes, Capricorn, 1999.
Another Joyous Occasion, Widespread, 2000.
Don’t Tell the Band, Sanctuary, 2001.
Live in the Classic City, Sanctuary, 2001.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 19, 1998, p. D9.
Guitar Player, February 1995, p. 18.
New York Times, April 12, 2000, p. E3.
USA Today, May 5, 2000, p. 2E.
Wall Street Journal, February 17, 1999, p. B1.
Washington Post, July 23, 1999, p. N15; July 16, 2001, p. C5.
“Widespread Panic,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 2, 2002).
“Widespread Panic,” RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/default.asp?oid=310 (July 2, 2002).
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