A couple of times a year, my friends and I, all upstanding citizens, mostly well employed, many of us parents, disappear for two to three days at a time, leaving babysitters, co-workers, clients, parents, significant others and sometimes, spouses with only the nascent explanation, “Widespread Panic,” as we jump out the door, throw a cooler in the back of the car and squeal the tires, headed in the direction of the nearest concert.
Those left behind can only look at the skid marks on the road and wonder, “Who, or what, is Widespread Panic?”
I’m tempted to say that they are a bunch of shady people, frequently in hats, who congregate around a band by the same name to cavort, dance, throw things and generally have a good time. That might be a little broad. And a little unfair.
I think it is fair, though, to say that Widespread Panic, or at least the Widespread Panic experience, is not defined solely by the musicians who have travelled together under that name for the last twenty five years. A large part of the experience is defined by the community that has grown around this band, one crew at a time over the last two decades.
For my group of friends, Widespread Panic was an early magnetic force, a regular event that gave us a reason to cut loose (like we needed one) during our twenties. A few of us had found the band in college, long before we knew each other. My friend, Brad, first saw them at a fraternity house in Georgia. I saw them open for (and blow off stage) Blues Traveler my first semester in school and then subsequently caught every show within driving distance of the University of Colorado.
Two things immediately appealed to me about Widespread Panic: their rhythm section and their songwriting. Dave Schools (bass), Todd Nance (drums) and Sonny Ortiz (percussion) form a flexible backbone to the band that allows them versatility without sacrificing structure. This framework enables Widespread Panic to move from head banging rock and roll to quick picking bluegrass and late 70s funk without sacrificing their own identity. In each genre that Panic visits, they still sound very much like Panic.
Panic’s songwriting (they attribute all tunes to the band without individual credits) combined heartfelt, smart and satisfying lyrics with strong lead guitar hooks from Michael Houser and rhythm guitar chops from John Bell built over that drums and bass foundation. The lyrics, mostly penned by Bell and Houser who are two of the most unique voices in rock and roll, used folk roots and modern imagery to evoke core emotional states. When experienced live, as a component of the instrumental ebb and flow that Panic created, they moved you to feel those emotions and to creatively express them yourself. Put shortly, you had to move.
During their most recent three day run, June 25, 26 and 27 at Colorado’s Red Rocks amphitheater, these two traits, the rhythm and the songwriting showed themselves throughout as Widespread Panic moved from one musical realm to another.
Schools, Nance and Ortiz held the foundation down all weekend, showing particularly powerful surges during Sunday’s sets. The first set ending Who Do you Belong To? a cover from Panic’s good friends Bloodkin, showed how a big thumping bassline can blend with an alt country sensibility to deliver a sound that I can only describe as Panic. Saturday night’s Chilly Water, Sunday’s Machine , Use Me and Last Dance and Friday’s Tie Your Shoes further demonstrates that the engine of the Panic truck is firmly planted between the two drum kits and Schools’ imposing figure.
The songwriting, also, continues to impress. Listening live to old favorites and songs off the new album alike, I moved from emotion to emotion. I felt the impatient, hopeful expectation of Airplane, an inspired choice to open the first set, followed quickly by the confident faith in friendship of Vacation. Makes Sense to Me filled me with righteous indignation. Pleas strengthened my resolve and I shouldered my burdens like the Big Wooly Mammoth who has to “wear that coat.”
The fundamental strength of the rhythm and the songs are still the things that keep me coming back. They are why, after three straight days of music, when my body is tired and my mind is wiped, I still want more.
As my friends and I graduated and started our lives in Denver, we began to meet at house parties and barbeques, hosted frequently by the core of our group who lived within a few blocks of each other. Like most other post college graduates, we talked a lot about music. Those of us who knew Widespread Panic formed a quick bond and introduced the uninitiated among us. In the mid 1990s, we made our first trek to see them together, at Red Rocks, our local outdoor amphitheater.
Together we have seen almost every Red Rocks run from the mid nineties until today. Many of us have travelled together to see them out of state. We have celebrated Halloween and New Years together. We have grown older, gotten married, had kids, taken jobs, been promoted, grown personally, emotionally and professionally. And still, we take the time each year to celebrate these concerts together.
And as we grew together, the band grew with us. Most of my crew cannot remember Widespread Panic without JoJo Hermann, the keyboardist who joined the band in 1992. None of us can imagine it without him. His playing added another dimension to Panic’s already broad sound. JoJo can back up the rhythm section or can take the lead and compete the guitar riffs. His vocals also create a nice contrast to Bell’s, steely where Bell is raspy. Over the Red Rocks run, Hermann tore up Good People, Ain’t Life Grand, You Should be Glad and Big Wooly Mammoth. He also introduced Jaded Tourist, a song from the Panic’s new album, Dirty Side Down that saw its first live performance.
In 2002, when Panic founder Houser passed away from pancreatic cancer, we all felt as if we had lost a friend even though none of us knew the man. He is a presence today, his songwriting and spirit infused in the music even as the lead guitar torch has passed to Jimmy Herring, a virtuoso whose technical prowess has brought new life to Panic’s playing. Herring challenges the band, forcing them to keep up or get drowned out. Panic, for the most part, has risen to the occasion.
Over the course of the Red Rocks run, there were times where the band did not sync up. The Jerry Joseph original Climb to Safety felt rushed and Saturday night’s Love Tractor started poorly and only began to coalesce during the final movement. Those moments are inevitable when you play a songbook of over 200 songs and are willing to experiment and they are outshined by the many transcendent musical experiences of the weekend.
Most notably, Sunday night delivered a consistent musical high, from the opening notes of Vic Chesnutt’s Let’s Get Down to Business to the mind blowing Last Dance (Neil Young) conclusion. Throughout the evening, the band seemed to play as one entity, building on their collective groove to create the vast sound that we have come to know and love.
And my friends and I took it all in. These days, Widespread Panic concerts might be the only time we see each other for months at a time. We have spread across the state, pursuing our own goals. But when we meet back up, it is as if time has not passed. We are twenty five again, letting loose on a weekend, filling the hours with smiles, conversations (both important and frivolous) and dancing.
And you know what is cool? We are not the only ones. As we sat on the Red Rocks terraces and waited for the shows to start, we talked to the groups around us. For the most part, they were just like us, crews who had built a friendship around this band and who, despite the years, created time to keep the tradition going. Professionals now, and parents, who, despite having seen the band countless times, still want more.
So who is Widespread Panic?
Well, it is a group of people. And quite a few of us wear hats. Some of us are shady. There is a counter culture element to the experience after all and the draws of that outlaw adventure will always be a part of rock and roll and of the band.
But mostly it is us, the myriad crews who found this band and built a life with them, who will, as long as the band continues to tour, be there, expectant and waiting, willing to take whatever ride the band offers so long as we can do it together.