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.