9/29/06 Preview Rupp Arena

After time off and with a new album, band recovers from death of founding member and another lineup change
By Walter Tunis

At its last Rupp Arena performance in 2003, Widespread Panic found itself reeling as much as rocking.

The audience-friendly Athens, Ga., jam band was still fresh was the loss of founding guitarist Michael Houser, who died a year earlier from pancreatic cancer. But his replacement, Mississippi-born George McConnell, proved a healthy catalyst for the fresh grooves on the Panic's then-current album, Ball.

But the Rupp performance was also one of the band's final outings before slipping into a yearlong hiatus -- its first extended break since the band was formed in 1985.

Now we have the Panic back in working order with a new studio album, a renewed attitude and, surprise of surprises, another shift in the guitar ranks.

"Everybody experienced the break in a different way," said Panic vocalist, rhythm guitarist and de-facto leader John Bell. "Dave (Schools, the band's industrious bassist) went out and played a lot. Jo Jo (Hermann, the Panic's keyboardist) played in a little Mardi Gras-style band. But aside from an acoustic show I do for charity every year at the House of Blues in Orlando, I wanted to see what it felt like not performing. It was the longest time I went without being onstage since I was 18. And, you know, it was a little strange.

"But you get some perspective in a situation like that. As a band, you're together so much of the time. All of a sudden we didn't have that for a year. I think that refreshed our appreciation and friendship for each other. You remember who you are without identifying yourself so completely through music."

A smattering of concert albums kept the Panic's grooves visible during and immediately after the hiatus. Among them: Night of Joy with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the earthy New Orleans funk brigade that will share the stage Sunday with the Panic at its Rupp Arena return; Uber Cobra, a predominantly acoustic set; and Jackassolantern, a sampler of Halloween performances. But new studio music didn't arrive until last spring.

On Earth to America, the band switched producers (from John Keane to Terry Manning), temporarily relocated to the Bahamas for recording sessions and opened the scope of its tunes to include string arrangements on the Eastern-flavored Second Skin and the finale toast May Your Glass Be Filled.

"The recording studio can offer a very clear environment to play in," Bell said. "You can hear a lot. You can even hear phantom sounds. They aren't there on the recording, but you all of a sudden hear them in your head. They could be strings or a horn section. These situations can also help direct you ideas for vocal harmonies or melody lines. That's when the song starts coming alive for you. All you have to do then is re-create what you're hearing in your head."

To help preview the new material, the Panic set up shop at Atlanta's Fox Theatre in May for a performance that was simulcast live in movie theaters across the country. A DVD of the concert will be released in November as Earth to Atlanta.

Then panic struck in the Panic camp. When the band took to the stage of the Louisville Palace for a two-night run in August, McConnell was gone. The player who helped guide the band through a heartbreaking personnel transition was history.

For Bell, the why and how of McConnell's split is "not something I get too excited to talk about."

"Sometimes relationships have certain lives of their own," he said. "Some last forever, some don't even begin and some are sort of in between. George's relationship with us was one that was in between. It has happened, and everyone has moved on."

The split led the Panic back to its original choice of replacements for the late Houser: guitar jam band celebrity Jimmy Herring, whose credits include roles in Col. Bruce Hampton's Aquarium Rescue Unit, The Allman Brothers Band, The Dead (the short-lived Jerry Garcia-less reformation of The Grateful Dead) and Phil Lesh and Friends.

Herring initially turned down the offer to join the Panic, having committed to touring with The Dead. But his official Panic debut at Radio City Music Hall last month was a quick and easy fit, Bell said, as Herring's musical communication skills proved as keen as his instrumental prowess.

"Music starts with people as individuals. It's all a matter of how well you get along on a personal level as well as a musical one.

"But then, when you get down to it, music can be pretty personal."