Chareleston Post & Courier
Widespread Panic living 'One Day at a Time'
By Mark R. Pantsari
Aside from the rigors of its own touring schedule over the past few years, Widespread Panic has kept Internet and jam band rumor mills working in overdrive.
In the bands gradual rise from an Athens, Ga., bar band in the mid-'80s, to the top of the jam band heap by the new millennium, Widespread Panic has certainly taken the rumor mill for a spin on occasion, though sometimes quite unintentionally.
The first instance began in the summer of 2002. What looked to be an incredibly big year for the band turned out to be the darkest hour in Panic's 15 years of existence. Amid two headlining sets at the first Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tenn., the Internet message boards were awash with rumors concerning the health of founding member Michael Houser. Nicknamed "Panic," Houser was more than just influential in the naming of the band. From his seat at stage right, Houser's "lingering lead" and lyrics were a driving force behind Panic's sound.
Up until the summer of 2002, Widespread Panic's momentum was nearly unstoppable. With seven strong studio releases and hundreds of live shows played all over the world, the band had a repertoire of hundreds of songs. The band's fan base was growing, as evidenced by Panic hosting the largest CD release party ever, when 100,000 people gathered in Athens during April of 1998 for a free show marking the band's release of the live album "Light Fuse, Get Away."
The momentum nearly came to a screeching halt in August 2002 when the band confirmed that Michael Houser had pancreatic cancer. He died Aug. 10, but the band pressed on with the help of longtime friend George McConnell assisting on guitar and Randall Bramblett playing saxophone for the remainder of the band's 2002 tour dates.
More Internet rumors began the following year with fans pondering the status of McConnell in the band and whether Widespread Panic would even continue to play. The group seemed to answer the rumors by announcing McConnell as an official member and releasing the band's eighth studio album, "Ball," in 2003. Widespread Panic continued touring throughout 2003. Rumors began once again when Panic announced it would be going on hiatus during 2004. For that year, the only music that Widespread Panic released was a series of live albums.
Fans rejoiced when the band returned to touring in early 2005, and Widespread Panic seemed to have picked up exactly where it left off. Just over a year after the band's return, rumors again swirled around when Panic announced that George McConnell was parting ways with the band. The announcement caused quite a stir, especially when it came in the midst of the band's summer tour.
"The Internet rumors usually have nothing to do with the truth," Widespread Panic's John Bell said in a recent interview with Preview.
The band announced in the same month that Jimmy Herring would be handling guitar duties for the band for the remainder of 2005. Surely no stranger to jam-band fans, Jimmy Herring is the consummate "go-to guitarist" for many touring rock bands.
A member of the original Aquarium Rescue Unit, Herring has toured with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh's Phil and Friends, performed with the Allman Brothers Band for a summer tour after founding guitarist Dicky Betts was ousted from the band, and handled lead guitar for the modern version of the Grateful Dead (The Dead) - no small task for any musician.
"Our familiarity with him was a big factor," Bell said during the band's decision to bring in Herring.
"We've known Jimmy since 1989 or so, when he was with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Obviously, his ability was a major factor, and of course his own personality and demeanor had a lot to do with it."
As a testament to Herring's ability, Bell said the new guitarist managed to learn 150 Widespread Panic songs in just over three weeks, and with only four band rehearsals.
"We're talking that good," said Bell.
This year also marked another major departure for the band, with the release of the Widespread Panic's ninth studio album, "Earth to America." The album was Panic's first studio album recorded outside of Athens. It also marked a move away from longtime Panic producer John Keane.
Produced by Terry Manning, "Earth to America" was actually recorded in the Bahamas.
"We'd always planned to do something out of the ordinary, for a bunch of years, actually," Bell said.
"But Mikey got sick and we stayed close to home. When the opportunity presented itself again, we just went with it."
In a scene where most bands are judged on their live presence and rarely on their studio output, Widespread Panic has been something of an anomaly, seeming equally comfortable in both the live arena and studio settings.
"In both mediums we just try to get our point across," Bell explained.
"The songs in the studio are going to come across a little more succinct, but I laugh in saying that because 'Second Skin' is 11 minutes long, but that's how much time we needed for that tune. You try to keep a live feeling in the studio, and when we play live we try to be clear in our communication.
"I don't know if you can call it the yin-yang or anything like that, but you've got two components there which are relevant in both worlds. The balance is sometimes a little different because in the live setting you really only have one shot, whereas the studio has some more perfectionist qualities to it. But you also don't want to let that stiffen the whole process. I really dig it; it really helps keep the whole musical experience in balance."
As Widespread Panic rolls into town Friday for a concert at the North Charleston Coliseum, rumors are still circulating as to the length of Herring's tenure with the band. Also, joining John Bell (vocals, guitar), Jo Jo Hermann (keyboards, vocals), Dave Schools (bass, vocals), Todd Nance (drums, vocals) and Sonny Ortiz (percussion, vocals), will be John Keane contributing electric guitar and pedal steel.
"We started off talking about one tour at a time," Bell said of Herring's time with the band.
"We're finishing up this tour and haven't really scheduled any spring or summer dates as of yet, but we're also very positive. We're a one-day-at-a-time kind of band. But it all feels really good, and we're very grateful for all of Jimmy's abilities and his intentions. The world is fortunate to hear him, wherever he chooses to play.
"But for now, everything is going swimmingly. It feels good and everyone is playing nice."