Widespread Panic Has Staying Power

Monday, January 20, 2014 - by Fil Manley

Widespread Panic, a.k.a. “Panic” or “Widespread”, as of this past week, is now set to grace a Riverbend stage for the first time.

They’re an iconic band, standing among a handful of jam-bands who glean the majority of their profits from live shows, rather than record sales.  

I recently watched the Iron Maiden documentary “Flight 666” which tells the story of how Maiden, who’s never received a lot of radio play, has managed to not only survive, but thrive, while their music remains mostly on “mute.”  They do this by reaching out to fans in far away places, by networking with them, and by generally being an awesome band.  

Just like Iron Maiden, Phish, and the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic has managed to create a massive and loyal following (of “Spreadheads”) by being one of those bands whose love of the music and down-home attitude transcends musical trends.

In the changing landscape of the record business, this has served them well in their 32 years of making music.  

A quick search of the bit-torrent network reveals digital recordings of their music dating back to 1992. Like Phish, and the Grateful Dead (who started it) they allow concert attendees to record and trade their live shows, which has resulted in the creation of an extensive archive of shows dating back to the era of the cassette tape.

It’s also had the effect of allowing people to hear their music (for free) long before the advent of peer to peer online trading, and given them a level of exposure they would not have otherwise received.

Maybe it was a bit of luck on their part, and maybe someone had a glimpse into the future, but it has served them well.

They’re a bit of an anachronism.  John Bell (The Singer), sings with a gravelly, Southern tinged voice sounding equal parts Marlboro, Jack Daniels and Bible Belt.

They have roots here in Chattanooga.  Founding member (now deceased) Michael Houser, grew up here, as did drummer Todd Nance.  They’re all musically adept, but I think what sets this band apart, is their ability to play together.  They build songs in their writing, and then build them in their lives shows.

Every song they play is a mixture of peaks and valleys, sometimes long and deep valleys, but always climbing to a crescendo, a big release, and this, I think, is a big part of why they have so many loyal fans.  Their music is just as much a physical and emotional as it is an aural experience.  It draws you in, and once you’re there, it holds onto you.

My favorite member is probably Sonny Ortiz, the percussionist.  When I go to their shows, I watch him.  He creates his own melodies within the larger scheme of their music, sometimes acting as a second drummer, sometimes creating a period on the end of a sentence with a single bell ring.

When I interviewed Sonny in 2007 he told me “It’s such genuine feeling (the music).  I’m not yanking your chain here.  I think it’s what motivates us and the fans, as members here and as part of the band.  It makes the fans yearn for another show, another encore.  It’s just a really, really great feeling.”

Any true rock and roller has to appreciate Jimmy Herring.  Herring joined the band a few years ago, and his guitar playing is an elemental part of the bedrock of their playing and his guitar solos are the wind that powers the waves.  

They’re all great musicians but I think it’s their ability to act as one living, breathing organism that sets their music apart.

Their recorded music, in my experience, can’t convey the depth and breadth of their music but if you ever have the chance to see them live, you should.  You may or may not like them.  They tend to be polarizing.  

Lots of people don’t like any “Jam Bands” at all.  I hear this all the time.  “I like a song that has a beginning, a middle and an end.”  

Whatever.  They have that, it just… different.  This isn’t pop rock.  It’s something else altogether, and while pop is great to dance to, that’s one of its few dimensions.  

Different how?  That’s the hard thing.  I don’t really know how to describe it, but suffice it to say, it’s a musical high for every part of you, and there definitely will be dancing going on.
 
I had the good fortune to enjoy watching them from a skybox at one of their recent sold-out New Years Eve shows at Phillips Arena, in Atlanta, and I was reminded that they’re not part of the mainstream.  That made me happy, because the mainstream doesn’t last for 30 plus years.

Catch them at Riverbend.  It will definitely be an extraordinary moment for the city and the festival, and regardless of how you feel about Jam Bands, I promise, you will never forget it.

~Fil Manley
filmanley@gmail.com





 


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