Every now and then a group comes along who sells out shows without getting much if any radio/video play. These are usually the so-called jam bands, road warriors averaging more than 200 shows a year. And each one is different.
Most groups tour in support their latest effort. Jam bands might do that too but they also just want to get in front of fans. While that may not translate into too many gold records, it sounds like a lot more fun. One of those bands, who started out covering the Grateful Dead (the ultimate jam band), among others, is Widespread Panic.
At the beginning of each tour a list of songs in the band's repertoire is laminated. Using colored markers the group tracks what songs they have played during recent shows. Just prior to a concert, the band consults the song list to determine what they'll play. If there's a second set or encore, they go through the same process.
In the early '80s, guitarist Michael Houser (nicknamed "Panic") teamed up with guitarist/singer John Bell (JB). The duo, who met at the University of Georgia, played around Athens, GA. Bassist Dave Schools joined but the band continued to use local pick-up drummers. That changed when Widespread panic was slated to play a charity show at the Mad Hatters Ballroom in Athens. Houser's high school friend, Todd Nance, sat in. Even though he'd eventually join the group he was not used for their first recording session just a couple days later at Panoramic Recording Studio in Arnoldsville, GA.
At the Mad Hatters show Widespread Panic opened for Strawberry Flats which had Tom Keane, the group's future producer.
In '86, Texan percussionist Domingo S. ("Sunny") Ortiz sat in with the group for the first time and became a member two years later. Keyboardist John Hermann ("JoJo") joined the band in '92.
Things were rolling for almost a decade until tragedy struck. Houser passed away in '02 due to pancreatic cancer. With George McConnell playing lead guitar, the group issued "Ball" the following year. They took '04 off to rest and recharge then came roaring back in '05 but the following year the band and McConnell parted company and that left the door open for guitarist Jimmy Herring.
Now, while all that was going on, Widespread Panic expanded their reach. Their debut, "Space Wrangler," produced by Keane, was issued in '87 by Landslide Records. The band got help from Ortiz, not yet a member, and Phish keyboardist, Page McConnell. The set did OK but more importantly, it led to touring. Keane also began appearing with the band in '88, usually playing pedal steel. Widespread Panic's self-titled release on the legendary Capricorn Records hit in '92.
Appearances at Atlanta's Fox Theatre and the Bonnaroo Music Festivals in Manchester, TN, west of Nashville, built a faithful fan base. And it's inevitable that any band with lethal chops is going to put out a live album. "Light Fuse, Get Away" was the first of a series of live efforts.
A free "CD release party" concert in Athens for the album drew over 80,000 fans. And four years down the road (literally) the band received gold certification for their concert DVD Live at Oak Mountain.
Following "Ball," Widespread Panic unfurled '06's "Earth To America." The set was recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas. Nice. A show at Fox Theatre in support of the album was simulcast to select movie theaters across the nation. This show was also released on DVD as Earth To Atlanta. The group's 10th album, "Free Somehow," arrived in '08. Then came a set of vintage concert performances: "Carbondale 2000" ('08), "Valdosta 1989" ('09) and "Huntsville 1996 ('09).
When Widespread Panic played Red Rocks Amphitheater in '08 Mayor John Hickenlooper proclaimed June 27 as "Widespread Panic Day" in the City and County of Denver. Closer to home, the band was also inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
Jam bands usually sell more concert tickets than CDs. Widespread Panic's '10 release "Dirty Side Down" made its debut at #27 on the Billboard Album Chart and while that may not be too impressive in some quarters it was the group's best showing to date.
Like most jam bands Widespread Panic can move effortlessly between styles and seamlessly meld influences. Many argue that they are far better live. So reviewing a studio album is like evaluating a pitcher based on his batting average. It's nice when they get a hit but it's really not what they do. But "Free Somehow" is an impressive studio set -even if some of the solos go a bit long (that stuff works so much better with an adoring audience).
It has a thumping Southern Rocker in "Boom Boom Boom" and later returns to that style, adding horns, on "Up All Night." They even channel the Stray Cats on "Already Fried." Jazz motifs grace "Angels On High" while acoustic guitars provide the foundation on the title track, "Tickle The Truth" and "Dark Day Program." If the drama ballad, complete with synth stings, "Her Dance Needs No Body" doesn't connect, the frantic "Flicker" sure does.
On "Jaded Tourist," a track from "Dirty Side Down," there's the line about being a "shadow of my former self." There's no worry here. Widespread Panic shine brightly.
"Dirty Side Down" has some great moments - which no doubt will be expanded in concert. "North" owns a heady guitar/keyboards interplay - a true band strength. The title track and "True To My Nature" have a kick to them while "Visiting Day" stands out as a great Country-Rock romp.
People born north of the Mason-Dixon Line think back to their younger days when life was simpler and happier. But Southerners reminisce about a time that pre-dates them - the pre-Civil War era. So it's perfectly understandable that Widespread Panic cut loose on "Cotton Was King" ("and sugar was queen").