10/14/06 Widespread travel to see Panic perform

Charleston Post Courier
Widespread travel to see Panic perform


Mike Zimmerman and three of his friends rubbed the sleep from their eyes Friday morning, piled into a car in Johnson City, Tenn., and made the six-hour drive to see Widespread Panic at the North Charleston Coliseum.

For Zimmerman and others like him, it was almost like another day at the office.

In the past month he's traveled nearly 4,000 miles, hopscotching across the eastern United States to see his favorite jam band. Zimmerman, who saw his 108th Widespread Panic concert Friday night, has 3,700 miles to go before the band's current tour ends.

"I love hearing it live," he said. "It's never the same show."

Widespread Panic, which was founded in 1985 in Athens, Ga., plays its own songs and covers musicians such as the Talking Heads, Neil Young and The Band while adding its own distinctive twist to the music.

Its shows attract fans like Zimmerman, who travel from concert to concert, much like the die-hards who for years followed the Grateful Dead and Phish.

They come from all over the country, gathering in parking lots hours before the show starts and setting up tailgate vendor shops that make their touring venture financially possible. They sell hats, T-shirts, Widespread stickers, prints of the band, pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, quesadillas and even books.

They are students with master's degrees, students seeking degrees, former students with no degrees. There are ex-Wall Street financial analysts, teachers, waiters, authors. Some have children at home or riding along with them in Winnebagos.

As some of them hung out in the coliseum parking lot Friday afternoon, a mixture of smells wafted through the air - scented candles, beer, pizza in the oven and traces of other, odd odors.

To make ends meet, Zimmerman, 27, who recently earned a graduate degree, sells pencil-drawing prints of the band members that his friend draws.

"It helps me buy gas and tickets," he said. "I'd say we do better than break even."

Bear Lee, 26, travels to the band's concerts in a van that contains a bed pallet, T-shirts and stickers. He wears patched shorts, sandals, a T-shirt and a hat over his head of thick brown hair that hangs to his shoulders. Besides the music, it's the "spiritual essence" that keeps him on tour for his 10th year.

"These are all my friends, man," he said. "Everybody here. It's the music, the scene, the people, the family. Everybody looks out for each other. If I were to show up late, people would worry. It's got heart. That's the magic of it."

Across the row of parking spaces, Chad Rentz, a Clemson University graduate student, sits with friends before setting up his T-shirt shop. He's been following Widespread Panic off and on for 14 years, and was "full time" until he went back to school. The road life is tough - the dirty clothes, the makeshift beds, the sleepless nights - but worth it, he said.

"By the end of the tour you are saying you are never going to do it again," Rentz said. "But by the time another show rolls around, you just got to do it again. When they play, I feel closer to God and everything else than any other time in my life."

Thinking about the 467-mile trip to the band's next stop tonight in Birmingham, Ala., he shook his head.

"We've got to be in Birmingham by noon," he said. "Got to drive through the night."