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Published on October 3rd, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann

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Widespread Panic: Back to Life and Aiming for Reconnection

After reaching their official 25th anniversary in 2011, the six members of veteran Athens, Ga.-based Southern rock band Widespread Panic were relieved to step away from their rigorous tour schedules to catch their breath, dabble in new projects, and clear their minds. Not too many fans worried about possibility that singer/guitarist John “JB” Bell, bassist Dave Schools, drummer Todd Nance, keyboardist John “JoJo” Hermann, percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, and lead guitarist Jimmy Herring might not reassemble. Touring and performing together on stage are habits they’ll likely never break.

“Remember that feeling you had at the end of a school year in the late spring, right before summer vacation?” asks bassist Dave Schools, speaking with Metronome Charleston this week. “Well, that’s how I felt about the hiatus. Actually, it was more like a sabbatical than a hiatus from a day job. Pretty much all of us got to work on musical side projects, and we always bring what we learn during time off back to the band. Everything we bring back to the poker game, as it were, is helpful.”

Widespread Panic initially formed in Athens as a quartet with the late Michael Houser on lead guitar. They played their first show at an Athens club called the Mad Hatter in 1986. The next year, they released a debut album titled Space Wrangler on Atlanta’s Landslide Records. Things took off from there.

Through the 1990s, Panic established themselves as one of the most musically versatile, influential, hardest-working groups on the Americana jam band circuit. Musically, they drew from the classic American and British heavy-rock acts of the late ’70s, the best of the Southern-rock boom of the ’70s, and the jazzy blues-based experimental prog and fusion bands in-between. Their style leaned more toward a blend of the Allman Brothers’ sophisticated soul-rock and the rolling funk and boogie of Little Feat than the trippy psychedelia of the Grateful Dead and other vintage West Coast hippie acts.

A founding member of the band, Schools has always taken time to collaborate with friends and colleagues in laid-back and/or exotic musical projects. Most recently he got to record and tour with experimental composer Mickey Hart (the longtime percussionist of the Grateful Dead) alongside an international team of musicians (Crystal Monee, Tim Hockenberry, and Gawain Matthews). Schools also produced a new studio album for folk singer Todd Snyder. This spring, he grabbed his custom six-string bass guitar and geared back into Panic mode with his bandmates.

WP1-Credit-Andy-Tennille

Widespread Panic in 2013 (L to R): JoJo Hermann, Dave Schools, JB Bell, Sunny Ortiz, Todd Nance, and Jimmy Herring (photo by Andy Tennille)

“We’ve been relearning and finding our sea legs during these spring and summer tours,” Schools says of the band’s busy road work this year. “I think we’ve got ’em now. It’s a collective effort. You know, there are an awful lot of songs with an awful lot of time changes and parts. There is a core group of songs that are well embedded in our memories, but there’s a larger group of songs that we rarely play, so we’ve had to rehearse and work hard to get it all together.”

As any dedicated Panic fan would attest, the consistently tight band rarely gets off track or clams anything on stage, but Schools insists that they do occasionally miss a cue or veer into a wrong key or turnaround. Yes, even the might Panic is fallible from time to time.

But Schools and his bandmates enjoy shaking the rust off and navigating the rough spots. “It keeps things unpredictable,” Schools says “When it does turn into a train wreck, a fun option is to simply follow the wreckage to see to see where it goes, musically. That breaks the reverie, but it’s one of the joys. You find yourself with an opportunity, and that’s usually pretty cool.”

Widespread Panic have been exploring those joy-jams in recent months. They’ll return to the Lowcountry for a two-nighter at the Family Circle Stadium on Oct. 4 and 5 with longtime pals Umphrey’s McGee handling the opening sets for both shows.

Schools says, as with most of their concerts, they’re not sure what to predict for the Charleston fans. “We always write our set lists on the day of the show. Nothing’s scripted ahead of time,” he says. “The sets are based on what was played the night before, so as not to repeat songs — and that’s really for our own sanity — and they’re based on the setting and thematic elements of the venue. If it’s raining, we may add a song that reflects that theme. If it’s a Tuesday, we might try to cover a song with ‘Tuesday’ in the title or lyrics. It’s a little game we play with ourselves and the audience.”

Schools and the band regularly bounce new material and unexpected progressions off of their fans, new and old, during national tours. The fans are usually eager to catch new twists, and the band is always eager to gauge the reaction.

“We’ve learned all sorts of lessons along the way — from how to be self-reliant and independent to taking new approaches to touring and promoting — but we’ve always known to appreciate the one-on-one relationship we’ve had with our fans,” Schools says. ” That’s one of the most important things, and that’s something we never forget, Without your core fans, you’re nothing. You have to nurture a relationship with them that goes way beyond the illumination of the band on stage.”

Performing on the fancy court in the Family Circle Stadium on Daniel Island will be a new experience for Schools and his bandmates this weekend — one they can add to a series of successful concert experiences that has enhanced their love affair with the coastal Carolina and Georgia.

“We’ve played some incredibly different place in Charleston over the years,” Schools says. “The first time we played down there was at Myskyn’s Tavern near the Mark [on Faber Street]. Phish opened for us. It was their first time ever touring South. We’ve done gigs at the College of Charleston. We’ve played the Windjammer and the Music Farm in both locations [East Bay Street and Ann Street]. We’ve played at the minor league stadium [the “Joe”] and nearby at Brittlebank Park. We’ve played at the North Charleston Coliseum several times. We’ve thoroughly covered our tracks in the Lowcountry.”

“I absolutely love Charleston. It’s a special place,” he adds. “Even if they are friendly rivals, I think Charleston and Savannah are two of the most beautiful coastal cities in the South, You can’t beat the architecture, food, culture, and history. They celebrate their heritage. After 25 years of playing in Charleston, I feel like we’re a part of it. It’s in our blood.”

Widespread Panic will headline the Family Circle Stadium on Daniel Island on Fri. Oct. 4 and Sat. Oct. 5. Gates will open at 5 p.m. both night. Umphrey’s McGee opens both shows.Tickets are available for $51.50 and $44. Visit widespreadpanic.com and familycircletenniscenter.com/concerts for more.

Top photo and video clip below by Andy Tennille.

 

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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.



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