10/19/06 Widespread Panic leads the jam - reluctantly

Widespread Panic leads the jam - reluctantly

Don't get them wrong - they like the fans, but hate being typecast

published: 10/19/06

Talk to the fans of Widespread Panic and they'll tell you without pause that their cherished act is one of the leaders of the jam band scene.

They're not wrong. With the Grateful Dead in quasi-reunion mode and Phish floundering in retirement, the Georgia-based Widespread Panic has become a de facto leader of the sub-genre that celebrates improvisational grooves inside trippy, dippy, milky white funk rock.

Yet, it's worth noting that despite their fans' praise, the members of Widespread Panic tend to hate being labeled a "jam" band.

For effect, the June issue of Harp magazine quoted Panic bassist Dave Schools saying "Jam bands can kiss my ... . Most of 'em can't write a ... song."

And still, the band's fans throw out the "J" word when talking about the Panic.

"They love to do that, and God love them," says Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, the band's percussionist.

Talking from a phone in Nashville, the percussionist sounds as upbeat as his nickname. He also doesn't seem to care about what genre the fans label his band. He's more worried about the notion that his group doesn't appreciate the fans.

This is an a strange thing to defend since, during its 20 years of existence, Widespread Panic has been pro-bootleg, allowed its fans to sell T-shirts outside the concert grounds and hasn't objected to its followers shucking cheese sandwiches to each other in the parking lots.

Still, Ortiz says there are people who believe his band is hatin' on its people.

"Sometimes for us we hear that fans are complaining about ticket prices," Ortiz says. "But we've been trying for many years to try to keep the ticket prices down and play fan-friendly venues and making music the most important part of the equation."

That's the idea when Ortiz and his Widespread Panic boys step into Augustana College's Elmen Center on Wednesday night.

For a band that started playing the frat and sorority houses in Athens, Ga., the show is a return to the college setting. It's also a chance for Widespread Panic to play the music from its latest album, "Earth to America."

Like Ortiz says, the record is all about the music as the band presents a slightly different take on the lethargic, prolonged southern rock it's been playing for two decades.

Recorded in the Bahamas, "Earth to America" was the first studio album the band didn't record in its home state. And the result is different. The songs are less jangly and a little more focused. But they still carry the keyboard heavy, crunchy-guitar sound the band has played since the '80s.

"We've been doing this and we've always been happy and always had the fans in mind," Ortiz says.

Sounds like Widespread Panic.

Reach reporter Robert Morast at 331-2313.