7/07/06 Concert Preview and Interview

Eugene, Oregon
Widespread Panic lets the music flow
By Serena Markstrom
Published: Friday, July 7, 2006

Part of being a pro at anything is knowing when you need help, then asking for it.

How could any general entertainment writer come up with better questions about Widespread Panic than the band's many "Spreadheads" living here in town?

These are people who, if they can't follow the band on its whole tour, check set lists online after out-of-town gigs. They burn hours on message boards at www.phantasytour.com and www.panicfreaks.org; they pore over the pages of Relix Magazine; and they know song histories so well they can remember a version of a song from a certain venue on a certain date.

They practice the time-honored and Deadhead-per- fected ritual of taping and trading shows - a practice condoned by the band.

So, like any self-aware person who realizes she's in over her head, this reporter got by with a little help from her Spreadhead friends to preview the group's Tuesday show at Cuthbert.

The group's origins date to 1982, according to the All Music Guide. Vocalist John Bell and guitarist Mike Houser began playing together as college students in Athens, Ga.; bassist Dave Schools joined the duo the next year and the band recorded its first single, "Coconut Image," in 1986.

Drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz joined soon after. Keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann is the last addition.

In 2002, Houser died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 40. Guitarist George McConnell became Houser's replacement, carrying out the founding member's wish for the band to go on.

The band's latest release, "Earth to America," came out June 13.

The tour manager tapped Ortiz to field the phoner from his hotel room in Los Angeles on a tour stop.

Question: I have some friends who are huge, huge fans so I took the liberty of letting them write some of the questions.

Answer: Cool.

Question: Where did you get the nickname Sunny?

Answer: In high school, I smiled a whole bunch and everyone called me Sunny. And I didn't use my birth-given name, Domingo, until after I gradu- ated from college.

Question: When did you start playing percussion instruments?

Answer: I started playing congas in 1971.

Question: What turned you on to that?

Answer: You know, R&B bands like Tower of Power, Cool and the Gang, Earth Wind and Fire. The Emotions. Average White Band. Chicago.

Question: This is your third time at Cuthbert. What do you like about Eugene?

Answer: Oh, Eugene! You know, home of the Ducks. Quack, quack, quack. And the other thing is the area is so beautiful and Eugene reminds me - or reminds all of us - of Athens because it's such a, you know, a nice little college town.

It's got a real nice little down ... not a downtown area, but it has a cool area where there's lots of great shops if I remember correctly. (Probably 5th Street Public Market.)

When we first started playing there we played at the WOW (Hall), many, many years ago.

Question: On the new album, you kind of went in a different direction. You worked with a different producer, you recorded in the Bahamas. Can you talk a little bit about what the experience was like and how it was different from previous recording sessions?

Answer: We worked with Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin). We had thought about not necessarily working with a different producer (the group had worked previously almost exclusively with John Keane), but trying to go somewhere to do a project and I guess maybe a year previous to that we decided we wanted to go someplace. We just had to decide where we wanted to go.

The Bahamas looked good. It's a great vibe, laid back, beautiful weather and we would be away from everybody; no one to bother us. And so we picked the Bahamas and, you know, we worked 12 to 16 hours a day for three weeks and this album sounds different, I think, because the producer had a little more input than the producers beforehand.

Question: Anything in particular you like about the album?

Answer: I like the way how it flows from the beginning of the song to the last part - to the Irish drinking song ("May Your Glass Be Filled").

Question: You don't think that flow was there on your last album?

Answer: You know it's really tough to say. To me all of our albums show a small progression. Each one, you hear how we grow as a group and as a band.

Question: Do you think that tropical setting had any direct influence on the sound?

Answer: Not so much as having the privacy, being locked in the studio. Just us being there (with) nothing else to sidetrack us.

You know, we all were focused and it was a great environment, you know, looking out the windows and seeing the ocean.

Question: It seems like that might be a distraction.

Answer: Not for us.

Question: OK. Next question is about your fans. They are passionate, loyal and sometimes critical ...

Answer: Very energetic. Very open, too.

Question: But the question is, for those out there who don't understand this relationship, could you elaborate on what makes it so special?

Answer: Well, you know, it's kind of like a marriage. There's a lot of give-and-take and emotions. There's a lot of happiness, sadness. There's a whole camaraderie, too. So when you put all those together, you have people who are conversing with one another, in different ways of course, because everyone is different.

Our goal is to make sure they understand what we are conversing about. We're just there making the music. They are there having the greatest time of their lives.

Question: What do you mean by understand what we're conversing about?

Answer: When we play music, when we do songs, we're conversing with each other through the lyrics and the music and the people are kind of accepting that. They are listening with their ears and they are either saying "oh, that sounds good" or "that sucks."

Question: They don't tell you that right on the spot, do they?

Answer: No. Sometimes you hear through word of mouth what people are saying about certain songs. How it flows, you know. We try to listen to our fans.

Question: Which sort of brings me into the question about set lists. You are sensitive to not playing the same songs from the night before, but do you actually choose a set list or ...

Answer: Everybody contributes.

Question: How much do you consider what you think the audience might like to hear?

Answer: Well, we don't want to be predictable. So we want people to be on their toes. We'll throw out different songs that we haven't played in a while so we aren't predictable.

Question: I guess I'd like you to talk a little bit more about the process of choosing a set list, what the process is like. Is it on the bus?

Answer: It's usually in our dressing room. It's a big, old, legal-sized see-through paper that we scratch out the songs. We pick and choose. Some of them are color-coded to where if they were played last night, they're green; if they were played two nights ago, they're red; three nights ago, they are blue. ...

We have a great time doing it. It usually takes us about 20 minutes.

Question: Would you ever cover a Lynyrd Skynyrd song?

Answer: Sure, for Halloween maybe.

Question: Why is John Keane going on the entire tour? (The producer typically sits in for a few special shows.)

Answer: Just like what I told you before, we kind of don't want to be predictable. And we kind of figured that the fans would really enjoy his musicianship playing the pedal steel and his guitars. And he had some time so we thought he would be the perfect addition for this tour. ...

Question: What's up next? What's in store for the band?

Answer: We're gonna write some more songs.

Question: Come on ...

Answer: Yeah, really we are. That's our biggest goal right now, to write as many songs as we can. And try to get a little bit more Internet savvy because we've got to keep up with the times.

We want this to last a few more years. Ten years maybe, 15 maybe. Who knows? So in order to do that, we're going to have to keep up with the times, keep ourselves above water, too, and kind of exceed our expectations as musicians.

You can call Serena Markstrom at 338-2371 or e-mail her at smarkstrom@guardnet.com.

Question: Well this last one is a very specific question from a fan who's followed you - he's only 26 years old but has been following you for years, seen 60 shows. I guess it's a request. He would love to hear "Mr. Soul," "Bears Gone Fishing" and "Ophelia," but the big question is, what would it take to hear "Ball of Confusion"?

Answer: Well you know, if we hit it on the right night I think it's possible. I can't guarantee it. I think that's a great mixture of songs. He should be a DJ. And those are all songs that we could throw out there, we could do in a heartbeat, depending if the mood hit us in the right way.

I'll have to remember that. It's possible.

Question: I guess those are all of my questions.


Question: You don't like doing interviews?

Answer:Well, it's such a beautiful day here. I like doing interviews. Interviews are important. They are part of our lives. ... That's what keeps the train going, so to speak. It's our responsibility. -end-

07/11/06 Cuthbert Amphitheater, Eugene, OR
SET 1: All Time Low > Disco > Dyin' Man* > Weight Of The World* > Holden Oversoul* > Better Off*, 1 x 1* > You Should Be Glad*, None of Us Are Free*

SET 2: Aunt Avis* > Bear's Gone Fishin'* > Doreatha*, Tortured Artist > Greta > Jam* > Mercy* > Drums > Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun Jam > Interstellar Overdrive** > Astronomy Domine Jam** > Interstellar Overdrive** > Vampire Blues**, Postcard** > Space Wrangler**

ENCORE: Thought Sausage*, May Your Glass Be Filled*

* with John Keane on guitar/pedal steel
** with John Keane on guitar/pedal steel, Sam Holt on guitar
[Only 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun Jam'; Last 'Astronomy Domine Jam' - 04/19/02, 272 shows]

from Everyday Companion