Widespread Panic: On The Beach
By James Calemine
“I seen your sister naked,
It was nothing I tried to see…”
“Ribs & Whiskey”
The Gulf of Mexico’s blue water shimmers in the distance. The not-too-distant-farming communities of southern Alabama surround these 12 square miles of Orange Beach. A scent of fresh salt-water lingers in the breeze…white sand surrounds every road. What better way to boost a coastal community’s economy than hosting a successful rock and roll band for three days?
Widespread Panic first played Orange Beach last year—April 2007. The Orange Beach community welcomed the band with open arms, especially after Hurricane Ivan decimated the surrounding areas several years earlier. The Wharf provides a very friendly atmosphere. The amphitheater is only a few hundred yards from The Wharf’s shopping village. Fans flock to this venue. Alan Jackson played here a few weeks ago and Kid Rock’s scheduled in May. Over the last 22 years--without radio, TV or major media, Widespread Panic has still managed to sell over three million albums, and remain one of the top 50 touring bands for the last decade. Panic’s formidable fan base stands as a dedicated following in the world of music, and these Orange Beach shows verify the band’s drawing power.
Widespread Panic epitomizes southern talent and hospitality in their generosity to charitable organizations such as Hannah’s Buddies, Brad Pitt’s Make It Right and Tunes For Tots. Speaking of Brad Pitt, did you know the girl on the cover of Panic’s third album, Everyday, features a photograph of a 16-year old Angelina Jolie? Panic always spreads their generosity around in different ways, whether it’s assisting handicapped children or exposing unknown artists to a wider audience.
Friday’s Orange Beach show on April 18, marked the tenth anniversary of Panic’s live performance in Athens where they set a record of the largest album release party in history with 100,000 folks in attendance. This show served as a fine kick-off to a highly anticipated three-day run for dedicated followers. Comfortably sequestered in one of the Wharf’s private rooms in the venue's complex, while waiting on the band to arrive, this writer sat down to capture a snapshot of the band on the day of the second Orange Beach Panic show on April 19, 2008.
Widespread Panic originated in Athens, Georgia, in the mid-80s when John Bell and Michael Houser began playing music together. Soon, they recruited drummer Todd Nance, bassist Dave Schools and percussionist Sonny Ortiz. During the week in Athens, the group played fraternities and on the weekends they hit the road. They made their first record, Space Wrangler in 1988.
Panic attracted the attention of Phil Walden Jr., son of Phil Walden, who managed Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers Band, originated Capricorn Records—and later engineered a deal with Panic. Panic served as the main band on the resurrected Capricorn label. Panic released their second album (Mom’s Kitchen) in 1991, and their fan base began to mushroom. Through Capricorn connections, Billy Bob Thornton shot his first film on Widespread Panic called Live At The Georgia Theatre in Athens. Soon, John Hermann joined the band as full-time keyboardist in 1991.
Around this time I became friends with Daniel Hutchens and Eric Carter of Bloodkin. Panic recorded the Bloodkin song “Makes Sense To Me” on their second album. I lived with the Bloodkin boys from late 1992 to fall of 1996, and in those years I crossed paths with various members of Panic along with their significant others, crew and musician friends. Panic covers renditions of at least eight Bloodkin compositions.
The ante was upped in 1993, and Panic went to record with Johnny Sandlin in Alabama for their album Everyday. Sandlin contributed credibility to the band since he previously worked with Duane Allman, Eddie Hinton and a long list of others. At this point, Panic continued building a broad following on the grassroots level. By the time they released the 1994 album Ain’t Life Grand, they became a force to be reckoned within the musical touring community. Panic always operated on the outside of they way the corporate music industry conducted business, which appealed to fans and other musicians alike.
Panic crosses all musical boundaries, yet they’re pigeonholed by lazy journalists as a jamband. Critics overlook Panic’s intention to carry on old traditions of songwriting and storytelling in a way record companies never understood. They’re homage to old songs and stories went overlooked by jaded journalists and record executives who never grew up paying attention to musical history of a specific geographic area, and artists indigenous to those environs. Panic always represented a dark horse band amid the flavors of the month…bands that came and went, but Panic plugged along at their own pace. They became road warriors through the years—playing almost ten months out of the year…year after year.
After the performance in Athens, Georgia, on April 18, 1998, Panic continued their ascent. In 1999, they released Til' The Medicine Takes, which found the group at their zenith. By the new millennium, Panic achieved a streamlined velocity. Musicians admired Panic for their sole devotion to the music, and for people who seek out underground writers, filmmakers and musicians…Widespread Panic hold their own in the world of artistic secrets.
Over the years Panic played and collaborated with Vic Chesnutt, Bloodkin, Jerry Joseph, Allen Woody, Warren Haynes, Tinsley Ellis, Colonel Bruce Hampton, Vassar Clements, Dave Matthews, Oteil Burbridge, Art Neville, R.E.M’s Mike Mills, Mavis Staples, Carlos Santana, Randall Bramlett, Bernie Worrell, Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, David Barbe, Butch Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, William Tonks, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Cedric Burnside, Robert Randolph, Robby Krieger, Chuck Leavell, Jorma Koukonen, Merl Saunders, Steve Winwood and many others. The band represented a fine example of southern musicians who—regardless or record companies and industry trends—forged ahead to the tune of their own drummer.
In 2000, Panic released a live album with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band titled Another Joyous Occasion that illustrated Panic’s musical ability to morph into any musical style. The Hanson Brothers (Scrapple) shot footage on the summer 2000 tour for what would later become the film, The Earth Will Swallow You. I watched the film with Danny and Eric at the Georgia Theatre on the big screen. I remember thinking how Widespread really prevailed—they didn’t fight in public, fire band members in the press or endorse tabloid behavior, but remained in tact after 15 years of hard work on the road and in the studio. They built their own empire, and began to enjoy the fruits of their success. In 2001, the band recorded Don’t Tell The Band, a record which found them exploring more complex musical avenues.
In January 2002, the band threw a 40th birthday party for guitarist Michael Houser. Two months later Houser was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Darkness descended on the band. At that point, it became very difficult for a friend or fan of the group not feel the heavy sorrow leaning on the band and family members during this critical time. Michael Houser passed away in August of that same year. His death sent the band reeling, and Houser’s eloquent recordings, titled Door Harp, served as a sad epitaph to a great father, friend and musician.
The band released Live At the Classic City during this time. John Keane, Sam Holt, Randall Bramlett and George McConnell stepped in to fill in Houser’s huge void. The band went into the recording studio to record Ball—which turned out to be a fine album considering the amount of darkness and turmoil surrounding the album’s provenance. Ball contained songs Panic never played live before.
From 2003-2005, Panic released five live albums, which highlighted their performance strengths. Then the band took some well-deserved time off. In 2006, Panic traveled to the Bahamas with producer Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, Al Green, ZZ Top) to record Earth To America. The group continued touring ruthlessly, although recently they’ve scaled it back just a bit to allow band members proper time to rest.
In the fall of 2006, guitarist Jimmy Herring—whose resume includes working with Colonel Bruce Hampton, The Allman Brothers Band and The Dead--joined the band in place of George McConnell. It became a new era of the band, and in 2007 Panic returned to the Bahamas with Terry Manning again to record songs that would end up on the record Free Somehow. Free Somehow was released in March of 2008, which leads us to these electric evenings in Orange Beach, Alabama.
On this spring 2008 tour so far, Panic played stellar shows in Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C., and Cincinnati, which can be verified and purchased by visiting LivewidespreadPanic.com. After Orange Beach, they travel onto Savannah, Richmond and Raleigh next week before taking a few weeks off.
With Jimmy Herring in the band, Panic wields a muscular sound that allows them to flex their musical dexterity. Only Jimmy Herring’s humble and sheer talent fits with Widespread’s musical ethos as far as guitar players go. Each member serves as their own story with side-projects and various interests. Todd remains the backbeat—a steady and true foundation everyone counts on. Dave’s low-bottom, mean and resonant sounding bass augments the power of Todd Nance. Jojo’s New Orleans-induced piano talents lend an indelible color to whatever the song needs. Sonny does the work of three men in his polyrhythmic percussion. Of course, JB remains the figure head and the soulful singer/storyteller who narrates Panic’s cinematic music. In every way—far as I’ve experienced over the years—they remain honest, cognizant musicians who ultimately care about transmmitting an unshakable emotion…whatever emotion they care to evoke…through the music.
Friday proved breezy and soon turned humid. The band seemed a little tired, but no worse for wear and tear when they played. They performed a solid set list which revolved around mostly older material. The highlights for me were “Walkin’”, “You Got Yours”, “Blackout Blues” and a song from Free Somehow called “Tickle The Truth”. It began to rain towards the end of the show, but the weather did not dilute the band’s potent performance.
On Saturday the weather appears much more indicative of what one might believe beach weather should be…sunny, warm and a pleasant breeze flowing. It’s beautiful down here. The band just arrived. Between paragraphs of this article, I walked downstairs and I the first person I saw was Dave. I asked him how he was feeling after his nasty spill last night, and he replied in a friendly way, “Not good.”
During this weekend I wanted to stab on the table why the band—like it or not—exist as a link to the south’s forgotten and glorious elements such as songwriting, lineage to Capricorn Records, musical collaborations and a voice for the unspoken. Panic pursues aspirations of their heroes because musicians from the south always seem to focus on writing songs and telling stories. I like the way they keep it among themselves who writes what lines or what licks…only Panic can get away with that. Ask any of the flavor-of-the-month if they can conceive existing as a cohesive unit for 22 years without imploding. Just like Panic can be the only band in rock and roll who remains careless about tattoos or piercings for some shallow rock and roll vanity…
Dave Schools’ father runs a cool website called Bluepower.com, which is an interesting music site I suggest everyone explore. I prowled around and took some shots of the empty amphitheater. Everyone was friendly. The catering food tasted good, and it answered my silent curiosity about the quality of food musicians were served on the road.
I’d also like to point out how talented and skilled the roadies and technicians have to be that work with the band. The common fan does not understand how talented roadies often are…renowned guitar players don’t employ any jackass to safe guard his instrument or tune it, unless they admire and respect the technician in some way—plain and simple…same with the guys who drive the trucks…
We’re about an hour from show time here on the second evening. Todd checks in on us as the place begins to fill up. My unsung hero of the weekend was Todd’s brother Rodney. His hospitality and hilarious dialogue emerged as a highlight for me. Hearing him and Todd tell a couple of old family stories—in a very humorous way-- only made them more endearing. I look forward to eating some barbecue with Rodney in the future…
Just before show time, Dave comes to the lip of the side stage where I’m standing, and I ask how he’s feeling, and he replied, “Like I got hit by a Mack truck.” He gave me a slap on the back and assured me we’d go on the record soon…even if it’s just him contributing to Swampland. By hearing him play, you’d never think Dave was in any physical discomfort…
Tonight the place is packed. It’s amazing. Many beautiful girls stand in the crowd and it seems tonight’s full moon adds another dimension to the overall fever of the evening. Tonight's setlist carries an electric, monstrous sound…an edge. “Porch Song” began the set, which conjured old images of Athens for me. Only Panic can nail “Low Rider”—a testimony to Sonny’s immense percussive talent. I really enjoyed Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied”. I talked to Crumpy for a couple of minutes, and it was a gas to see him outside of Athens…
At the set break Todd comes in and we start talking about Jimmy Herring. “He’s in my top five guitar players breathing on the fucking planet right now.” Earlier, even up until show time, Jimmy was on the bus playing the guitar. “I asked Jimmy if there’s ever a time when he’s not playing his guitar,” Todd said, as he grinned, and gave Jimmy’s classic response, “Yeah, when I’m fishing,” which gave everybody a laugh. I took photos that reveal a fine perspective, despite their quality since I didn’t want to use a flash, and people really aren’t allowed to take photos after the first three songs anyway, but I decided to include a few just for kicks.
By the beginning of the second set, I began to feel a strange gravity of time…the present moment always fades into tomorrow and yesterday’s shadow….I’d have to get off this locomotive and pursue my own obligations and get another story down. Hell, none of us knows how much time we have left, so it’s carpe diem. Back to Atlanta tomorrow, but there’s still more to tell…but not right now…
Panic’s power now abides in the fact they provide a cosmic link to the past for people…like, say 15 or 20 years ago in someone’s life…before they met their wife or significant other who gave them children or…when life was not what it is now. Their music allows people to revisit their past and outline riddles of the day that provide a glimpse into the future’s unknown. The past is gone, but as long as you still have the present-moment opportunity to hear the band…everything rolls on…even if it changes…into one long story…
When I walked out the back gate, I could see the full moon shining over the Wharf as a Gulf breeze blew, and I could still hear fading notes of that widespread magic that always reminds...ain't life grand...