10/20/05 Panic Keeps Spreadheads Guessing (interview w/ Sunny)

Panic keeps 'Spreadheads' guessing
Jam band's set list changes every night
By Sarah Mauet
arizona daily star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 10.20.2005

Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz celebrated his 19th anniversary with Southern rocking jam band Widespread Panic in appropriate anti-rock-star fashion.
"I watched (the) Braves beat up on Houston," he said in a phone interview from a tour stop in Mobile, Ala.

It was a conflict of sorts for the Texas-born percussionist who joined the Athens, Ga., sextet in 1986 - but the band members always root for the Atlanta Braves, he said.
If all six members were rooting for the home team, they were doing it in their respective hotel rooms - Ortiz watched the game alone.

The following overcast and windy morning didn't bode well for the outdoor BayFest Music Festival. Ortiz planned to sneak into Mobile early to check out the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which he said were still apparent more than a month later.
"We're about 45 minutes outside of the city," he said. "We've had to stay on the outskirts of the city because Mobile was one of these towns that offered assistance to all these homeless people, so I think every hotel downtown is booked.

"There's still a lot of debris," he added, mentioning destroyed billboards and missing business signs. "The emotions are high. People want to get back to their lives again back here."
Event organizers expected the three-day music festival to draw around 200,000 people. Widespread Panic, which is known for rocking like the Allman Brothers Band and jamming like the Grateful Dead, with a smattering of blues and world music percussion thrown in, seems to have held up its end of the deal.

"In a class of their own was Widespread Panic. They churned out tunes for nearly four hours and showed why they are one of the most notorious touring acts in recent history. Just like BayFest as a whole, Widespread certainly delivered more than promised," said an event review in the Vanguard, the University of South Alabama college paper.
Widespread Panic has been earning a string of positive reviews since returning from more than a year on hiatus. While there are still tickets available for the Tucson show Wednesday, many Widespread Panic concerts sold out within minutes - 5 minutes in Chicago, 4 minutes in Asheville, N.C., and 14 minutes in Atlanta, where more than 90,000 requests for tickets were turned away, according to press material.

Not bad for a band that gets scarce radio or MTV attention.
Pollstar recently ranked the band at 15 on the chart for the top 50 best-selling tours to date in 2005.
The secret: Never repeat a set list.
"Every performance day, we get together, we rehearse and we talk about the songs we haven't played in two or three days," Ortiz said. "We try to perform these songs that aren't so repetitious in our repertoire, that are obscure and give people their money's worth. We really do want to make it exciting."

"Spreadheads" can follow the band for days at a time without hearing the same song twice. Regulars even make bets on which songs will be first or last at each concert, Ortiz said.
"There's always the excitement of people saying, 'I wonder what songs they're going to play today,' " he said. "We can go four nights without repeats. We want people to be always listening and always coming to hear us."

Fans have been turning out to hear the band for almost 20 years, but in 2002, when the band was packing arenas, the group received a huge blow. Lead guitarist and founding member Michael Houser died of pancreatic cancer.
The band - with Houser's blessing - played on.

Widespread Panic performed more than 100 shows in 2003 with longtime friend and guitarist George McConnell. After fulfilling previously booked shows, the band finally took 2004 off to recoup and properly mourn the loss of its founder and friend.

"With Mikey's passing three years ago, we had shows we were committed to and obligations we had, and for us to come to a complete stop at the time wouldn't be fair to the fans," Ortiz said.
The band recorded shows before taking the year off and released four live CDs while on hiatus, during which, Ortiz said, he was "a stay-at-home mom" for his son, 11, and daughter, 7.
Though the fans enthusiastically welcomed back the band, the members were a little nervous returning to the road in March.

"I think all the boys in the band kind of felt a little bit scared about going out there after 12-plus months," Ortiz said. "We wanted to see if we still had that spark together. We felt a little anxiety at first, but once the first set was over, we were brushing off our brows saying, 'Well, we're glad this is over.' "

While the band has always allowed fans to make bootleg recordings of shows, concertgoers won't have to smuggle in recording equipment anymore. The band launched a new Web site (www.livewidespreadpanic.com) that offers professional-quality recordings of live performances almost immediately after each show.

As far as studio recordings go, the band is planning to release its first in three years sometime next spring. While the band has built its road-warrior empire on the strength of its jamming rock, there's no telling what the new album will sound like, Ortiz said.

"It always changes," he said. "I think that's why the people are still into it as much as they were 10, 12, 19 years ago. They don't know what to expect from us."