11/8/02 Interview w/ Todd Nance


Widespread Panic hits Knoxville three months after co-founder's death

By Steve Wildsmith

It's been nearly three months since the death of Michael Houser, founding member and lead guitarist for the Athens, Ga., jam-band giant that is Widespread Panic.

Three months since Houser, dying of pancreatic cancer at his home in Athens, Ga., summoned his bandmates -- bassist Dave Schools, frontman, guitarist and singer John Bell, drummer Todd Nance, percussionist Domingo ``Sunny'' Ortiz and keyboardist Jo Jo Hermann -- to his bedside, urging them not to disband after his passing.

Three months since thousands of devoted Spreadheads, as the band's legion of loyal fans are called, flooded Web sites and the band's headquarters, Brown Cat Inc., with sympathetic e-mails and cards.

Three long months.

And it hasn't gotten much easier, said Nance this week.

"You know, I just don't have anything good to say about that," he said. "What can I say? I miss the guy, and we're all pretty tired of talking about it."

But talk about it he does, weary of doing so but unable to hold back nonetheless. Houser's presence will undoubtedly hang over the group, laughing and smiling in the wisps of stage fog and smoke from the audience, for a long time to come.

But the show must go on -- as it will Wednesday, when the band performs at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum on the next-to-last date of a nine-city fall tour.

It's what Houser would have wanted.

Success story

It's difficult to put into words just how influential Widespread Panic, which first formed in 1985, has been on the popular music world. Panic has grown from a small core of devoted fans in Athens, who came to hear the band's improvisational Southern rock-meets-Grateful Dead inspired jams, to the heirs of the Dead's mantle as jam-rock kings. The band rivals Phish as one of the top draws on the summer tour circuit, packing in as many as 100,000 people to a hometown concert and making June's Bonnaroo Music Festival a huge success.

Panic got its start when Schools, Bell and Houser met in the Athens music scene (the same one that's spawned acts as varied as R.E.M. to Jucifer). The band started out tossing two-chord songs back and forth, changing tempo and then launching into improvisation, something that's become a hallmark of the band today.

When fellow jammers Phish decided to go on hiatus last year, Panic became the preeminent band on the touring circuit. Along the way, with the group's label partnership with Sanctuary Records and a documentary on the group, ``The Earth Will Swallow You,'' that recently screened at The Tennessee Theatre, the members of Panic found themselves at the head of a good-sized, lucrative corporation as well.

Fortunately, Nance said, it hasn't changed the music.

"I know it sounds strange, but for us it's been the same since day one,'' he said. "If we stopped to think about all that stuff, we'd put a lot of pressure on ourselves, but we surround ourselves with people who take care of those problems, so when it comes time to play, it's the same as it's always been."

More than anything, the band's affability and approachability have helped maintain the Spreadhead following, many of whom travel from city-to-city when the group is on tour, setting up carnival-like bazaars in the parking lots of major venues, selling everything from bongs to veggie burgers, trading tickets for rides and swapping bootleg tapes, which the band encourages.

Those same fans, Nance said, have helped make Houser's death a little more bearable for the remaining members.

"Oh, they're definitely supportive,'' he said. "They've been coming out to the shows since we went back out on the road (on Oct. 31), and I don't think you could show your support any more than that.''

A promise made

Houser announced to the world his cancer in July, on the band's Web site. He started the band's summer tour -- including a June date at Bonnaroo, in Manchester, Tenn. -- but in early July, he was forced to return home.

"Bonnaroo was just unbelievable,'' Nance said. "I don't think anything could have gone better. Plus, Michael got to be there with us, so that was a big deal to us.''

Whether Houser knew he didn't have long, no one in the band will say. He did post to the Web site his hopes of returning to the tour soon. But he died on Aug. 10.

"Mikey made sure we would go on,'' Nance said. "We all sat down with him, and it was one of his wishes that we keep going. During his last couple of weeks, we hung out together, and he wanted to keep playing, and he wanted us to keep playing."

"Plus, I can't imagine what we'd do if we did quit. You can't just sit home and curl up.''

But being out on the road again doesn't make it any easier, Nance added. Two musicians are filling in for Houser -- longtime Panic friends George McConnell (of the group Beanland) on guitar and saxophonist Randall Bramblett (who's played with Traffic and Steve Winwood).

But there's a heaviness on stage, according to Nance, where his old friend should be playing.

"I just keep waiting for him to walk through the door,'' he said. "I don't know how cathartic it's been, really. You just keep trying to go on.''

Baby steps

But the Panic juggernaut does go on. In addition to promoting the Bonnaroo DVD and live album, the group has its third live record, ``Live in the Classic City,'' on the shelves, a three-disc set that highlights the band's varied music influences, superb talent and free-for-all concert stylings.

Houser plays on the album. But without Houser in the lineup, the band has been forced to take baby steps back out on the road, Nance said.

"We've got like 150 songs, so we can't expect somebody to be able to play all of them,'' Nance said. "We play some songs only four, five or six times a tour, and we're not big on rehearsing, so it's a lot to expect somebody to do that like Mikey did. We're just trying to build it back up slowly.''

The band is eyeing another tour in the spring, but like the fall run, it will likely be shorter than what Spreadheads have become accustomed to.

"Our body of music is so large, there's so much work, but George is doing a great job,'' he said. "Whether we'll replace Mike or shuffle in different guitar players, we just don't know. Right now, we're not sitting around thinking up other guitar players, that's for sure.''

The band has been thinking about its next studio effort, however. The group has done some writing, and while the studio effort often serves as an excuse for the band to introduce new songs to fans before trying them out in concert, the care will still be taken to do something different, as always.

"We always try to do something a little bit different with every album, but how well that translates onto tape is always something new,'' Nance said.

And replacing Houser in the studio is something the band must deal with as well.

"For one thing, it's more work, because we've got to pick up the slack,'' he said.

Looking ahead

In the meantime, Panic will wind up the fall tour with a two-night run, on Nov. 15 and 16, in Memphis. Wednesday's show, at the Coliseum, will follow a similar format as all Panic shows have since the 1980s: No setlist, just a quick band meeting 20 minutes before the show starts to come up with a general outline for the night's performance.

From there, the songs are likely to change midgear. The Coliseum will be packed, and fans can count on the same throng of swaying, Pachouli-scented neo-hippies in the front row. The band will gear up, and once the guitars churn and burn, the medicine that is music at last will take.

And smiling right along with his bandmates, somewhere in the shadows, will be Houser, playing a solo that Nance and the others can still hear, echoing in their minds' eyes.

7/5/02 Starlight Theater Review

July 5, 2002
Starlight Theatre — Kansas City, Missouri
by John Kreicbergs

SET 1 Send Your Mind, Space Wrangler, Henry Parsons Died*, Use Me*, Bayou Lena*, C. Brown, Pleas, Imitation Leather Shoes

SET 2- Give, Papa Legba* > Get In Get Out*, Ride Me High* > Surprise Valley* > Drums** > Mercy*, Chilly Water*

ENCORE - And It Stoned Me > Travelin' Light

Entire show with George McConnell on guitar
* with Randall Bramblett on saxophone/vocals
** with Stanton Moore on percussion
[First 'Get In Get Out'; Without Mike; 'Ride Me High' tease and 'Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin' jam after 'Surprise Valley';

The colorfully clad masses began to descend upon the usually quiet rolling hills of Kansas City's Swope Park shortly after lunch, eagerly anticipating Widespread Panic's post-Independence Day show that evening and taking full advantage of the second day of a long holiday weekend. A sometimes sporadic but steady flow of small, sporty SUVs (a popular pick among this tie-dyed and Birkenstock sporting crowd) and other bumper sticker bearing automobiles (most offering a summation of the owner's unique socio-political beliefs with a few witty words and a couple of popular psychedelic icons) quickly dispersed about the park with many making their way towards the flying disc golf course. (Thankfully, it wasn't anywhere near the heavy stop and go highway traffic that delayed enthusiastic travelers the previous weekend for Bonnaroo, the three-day jamband extravaganza in Manchester, Tennessee.) Trunks opened, beer coolers appeared, the muffled sound of Widespread Panic could be heard issuing from a few faraway car speakers (possibly a previous night's performance from their current tour), and wisps of the pungent aroma of pot could be caught floating through the air.

For touring veterans Widespread Panic, these early summer days marked the beginning of what usually amounts to one or two months of solid concert dates. Rising from the collegiate ranks of the active, late-'80s Athens, Georgia, music scene, they prided themselves on being the antithesis of fellow local rockers REM. For bands like Widespread and their jamband cousins Phish, String Cheese Incident and the half-dozen other groups that have stepped to the fore since Jerry Garcia's unfortunate passing, success hasn't be found in album sales and radio airplay; instead, it's been earned night after night, one town at a time, and often one grueling tour after another. Now 15 years later, Widespread's enduring popularity flies in the face of conventional models regarding how to survive the cruel, cutthroat, and cookie cutter world that is today's music industry.

Between beers and joints, the primary topic of conversation around back bumpers and hacky sack circles centered primarily on the health of Widespread's lead guitarist, Michael Hauser. Rumors had been floating among fans and online communities since February that he was diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer and was the real reason for the cancellation of the band's highly anticipated European tour. Meanwhile guitarist and lead singer John Bell, bassist David Schools, keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann, percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, drummer Todd Nance and Hauser himself so far have remained silent concerning these speculations. Yet Hauser's absence and replacement two nights earlier in Milwaukee sent a clear signal that something was amiss, leaving many fans to ponder if he would be playing tonight.

This wasn't the horde of 70,000 people that marked the daily average attendance of Bonnaroo. Instead, Starlight Theatre -- an outdoor amphitheatre that can hold nearly 8,000 people -- was only a quarter of the way filled for the opening act, the New Orleans-based jazz/jam/funk outfit Galactic. Even by the evening's end, the venue was only filled to two-thirds capacity. Head count aside, however, Starlight proved to be a beautifully accommodating setup, heightened by the stage's impressive brick fa├žade and flanked on either side by the theatre's signature towers capped with copper roofs turned turquoise with age.

It was readily apparent as the crew began to reset the stage for Widespread that Hauser, who usually sits in front of his amps on stage right, wouldn't be joining the group this evening. Yet before the full weight of this realization hit the audience, Ortiz appeared onstage riding a bicycle and sporting a miniature fez precariously tilted forward on his head. After a few moments of cheering from the crowd, he was joined by the rest of the band which including guitarist George McConnell and was appearing to be more than just a temporary stand-in for Hauser.

Leaping headlong into the sultry evening's festivities, the band launched into a thundering cover of Van Morrison's "Send Your Mind". McConnell quickly found himself in the spotlight, taking a relatively short but impressive guitar break. Between verses Bell cheated towards the band's newest member, offering a strong show of support that would play itself out over and over again over the course of the evening. Moving quickly, the group immediately followed up with two staple selections, an energized rendition of "Space Wrangler" and an intensely driving version of "Henry Parsons Died" that featured the band's longtime friend and occasional guest saxophonist Randall Bramblett. Following with the heaving loping funk of the Bill Withers original "Use Me", which gave Hermann the opportunity to showcase his capable Hammond organ chops, the group rounded out the rest of the first set with a number of tried-and-true standbys from their repertoire.

After a short set break, which finally saw the sun mercifully slip behind the trees, the band opened their second set with two hard-edged rockers, "Give" and "Papa Legba", before debuting a new number, "Get In Get Out". This '70s Tower of Power-style funk number found Bramblett claiming the lead vocal honors and capably commanding the moment as McConnell was able to make one of the few statements for the evening that couldn't invite comparison between himself and Hauser. Whereas the first set featured the band's usual extended improvisational forays, the second set was a near endless flow of songs with each seamlessly segueing into the next, doubtlessly to be notated by the trusty ">" symbol scrawled in the notebooks held by the tapers standing among the sea of microphones in front of the soundboard.

The obligatory drum break, which was augmented by the prowess of Galactic drummer Stanton Moore and drawn out to nearly 30 minutes, signaled that things were beginning to move towards the night's inevitable conclusion. The dirge like drone of "Mercy" slowly mutated into the show's closer, a wildly raucous "Chilly Water" that had people emptying their bottles into the air in tall, wet arcs of cool water that were rendered electric by the non-stop light show. Stepping back onto the stage for short encore, the band offered up another Van Morrison cover. This time "And It Stoned Me" set a more reflective mood to things, helped along by sweetly singing solos by both Bramblett and McConnell, before finishing the night with a concise but solid version of another road-worn tune, "Travelin' Light".

All in all, Widespread Panic proved that things are business as usual for the band, a remarkable statement considering that the final confirmation of Hauser's battle with cancer would come less than two weeks later in the form of a personal note on the band's website. Hauser's note, short and to the point, concludes simply, "I have hopes of playing again soon, although I can't say for sure when or where, and I hope to see you all there." Doubtless most Widespread Panic fans are praying that they will have the chance to see that day come, too.