Widespread Panic Ready to Spook Asheville

Widespread Panic is back for Halloween gig
by Jedd Ferris, for Take 5 Music Online

Widespread Panic has always been good for a night of rowdy improvisational roots rock. But on Halloween, the Southern jam kings let it all hang out. The six-man, Georgia-based outfit has built a massive loyal following after more than two decades of hard touring, keeping fans on their toes with ever-changing set lists from a deep catalog of original material.

The band’s annual Halloween show has become a special event in Panic lore, as past gigs have been filled with elaborate stage themes and unexpected covers from the Ramones “I Wanna Be Sedated” to The Doors’ “People Are Strange” to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.” In the past, the Halloween show has been held in the more reputably decadent environments of Las Vegas, New York City and New Orleans, but this year the celebration comes to Asheville on Wednesday night at the Civic Center Arena .

Halloween '05

In the past year Panic has found a new stride, thanks to the addition of Jimmy Herring on lead guitar. Herring—who joins founding members John Bell on lead vocals and guitar, John “JoJo” Hermann on keyboards, Dave Schools on bass, Todd Nance on drums and Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz on percussion—has done time in the Allman Brothers Band and the Dead and has enhanced the group’s signature tunes with rapid fire runs and skillful touches of Southern psychedelia. Herring is band’s third lead guitarist. Founding member Michael Houser passed away after a battle with cancer in 2002. His spot was filled by George McConnell of the Kudzu Kings until 2006.

Ahead of the big show Bell took some questions from the road.

Question: How has Jimmy Herring helped reinvigorate the group?

Answer: He is a great player, and just as importantly, he’s fun to be around. He fits into our dynamic and adds to it in a positive way. That’s crucial when you’re out there doing over 100 shows a year. He has a lot of great song ideas.

Q: You guys just finished recording with producer Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, Lenny Kravitz and ZZ Top). What can you tell me about the new album?

A: It will be out in late winter or early spring next year. When we make a record, everyone is encouraged to put their two cents in. We had 25 partially baked ideas after doing some pre-production, and we brought it down to 12 tunes. They’re like a family with different kids. They all fit together with some similarities, but they’re all individuals. What we came up with is an honest reflection of where we are as songwriters, not just throwing it through a computerized meat grinder and coming up with something commercial.

Q: This was the second disc done with Manning. What do you like about working with him at his Compass Point recording studio in the Bahamas?

A: We trust Terry a lot with his wizardry. It’s good to get away from our hometown atmosphere, where everyone can be distracted. Removing ourselves and getting down there to work has had a positive effect. When we’re in the Bahamas, you’d think we’d be at the beach, but we’re in the studio 12 hours a day storming the castle. Next time we’ll take a day off and go fishing.

Q: This is your second show in Asheville this year. Why did you decide to bring this special Halloween show here to town?

A: For Widespread Panic, Halloween is a major holiday, so we like it to be someplace special. Asheville has grown on us over the years. We could tell that’s where the good vibe was going to be. We keep secret what we’re going to do. I don’t even tell the boys what I’m going to wear before the show. It’s the one time we get to play make-believe and do a lot of tunes that we wouldn’t normally play.

Q: You’ve played here 12 times since 1988. Do you have a favorite Asheville memory?

A: Playing at the Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam a few years ago was really heavy. There were some great players there, and I got to play with Sam Bush and John Cowan. It’s such a fun event for a great cause.

Q: What does Panic listen to in the tour bus?

A: Dave and Jimmy just turned me on to Jeff Buckley. His album “Grace” just blows me away, from the lyrics and vocals to the production to the overall mood. It’s a very heavy record. We also watch a lot of comedy. We just watched Patton Oswalt do a hilarious 2 1/2-hour ramble. Comedians are so performance-based. It seems a lot more live than some of the music you can expose yourself to. It’s raw nerve.

Q: Since you and Michael Houser were the original foundation of this group, did you have any reservations about continuing after he passed?

A: I considered the options and immediately realized it was never going to be the same. I think we did the right thing by sticking it out and continuing to play. But there’s still a healing process going on. We wrote so many fun songs together that I didn’t want to lock up the kid’s bedroom and never go in there again. I wanted to keep as much of the experience and relationship alive as I could. I don’t regret it at all.

Q: A lot of the grass-roots bands that Widespread came up with have called it quits. Why have you guys continued so strongly over the years?

A: You’ve got to do your best to stay open and make the right decisions along the way. A lot of it stems from recognizing each individual’s talents and forgiving each other when a lacking shows up. It’s a human thing going down. We don’t have a formula. We just go at things with the best intentions and have respect for each other. Outside of that it’s just keeping the creative juices flowing and writing songs together.