10/06/06 Panic returns: Macon Preview


Panic returns

By Maggie Large

This month will mark the 20th year since Widespread Panic percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz joined the Athens jam stalwarts.

The 54-year-old Texas native said in a telephone interview from a tour stop in Charlotte, N.C., that his varied musical background is probably what makes him mesh so well with the other players. Widespread Panic plays the Macon Coliseum Saturday night with Susan Tedeschi opening

Ortiz is originally from Waco but moved to Austin in the mid-1970s to join that city's burgeoning music scene.

"There I played with all kinds of bands, reggae, country, conjunto," Ortiz said.

Some years later, a good friend of Ortiz's moved to Athens.

"I packed up all my stuff and visited him," Ortiz said. "These boys were playing regular Monday nights at the Uptown Lounge, and I sat in with them one night."

The rest, as they say, is history.

"We never talked about the kind of music that we liked, we just played what we felt," Ortiz said.

These days the group is adjusting to the addition of guitarist Jimmy Herring after George McConnell left the group. Herring is a veteran of bands such as the Allman Brothers Band and Aquarium Rescue Unit. Mike Houser, Panic's original guitarist, died of pancreatic cancer in 2002.

"We've had to make some changes and revisit new avenues," Ortiz said. "(Herring) leads us to a new dimension with his playing."

At the same time, Ortiz seemed to hint that the band's lineup was still in flux.

"Nothing is etched in stone," he said. "The five of us have to make decisions for our future."

Though Panic has released more than a dozen studio albums and several live recordings, they've always been celebrated most for their freewheeling live sets. Their latest is this year's "Earth to America."

They've long embraced technology in getting the word out about their music. The site LiveWidespreadPanic.com sells audio files of the band's concerts recorded directly from the soundboard, sometimes as soon as 48 hours after a gig.

In May, Panic performed a concert at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta that was simulcast to dozens of movie theaters around the country. That show is set to be released as a live DVD, "Earth to Atlanta," on Nov. 14.

"I'm very proud of how we've established our roots in this business," Ortiz said. "Being self-sustained is rare. We make our own calls, whether it's what songs are on the album or what the advertising looks like."

Ortiz said while the band's stronghold tends to be in the Southeast, he enjoys playing out West and in the Big Apple, too.

"I love playing the San Francisco area, I love Red Rocks (near Denver)," Ortiz said. "It's always fun to play New York City. Last time we were there, we did Letterman."

And lastly, the secret to his nickname Sunny? Domingo translated from Spanish is Sunday, and that got shortened to Sunny in school.

"My real name is Domingo Steven Ortiz," he said.