Southern jam kings Widespread Panic will hit the road this month with a new album in tow. Street Dogs, out September 25 on the venerable Vanguard Records, was recorded last winter at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, N.C. The album features 10 tracks of Panic’s unpredictable, genre-swirling brand of exploratory Dixie rock. The set mixes originals like the eight-minute jazz-flavored jam vehicle “Cease Fire” with some random covers like the twang-and-funk reading of Alan Price’s “Sell Sell” and a gritty update of Willie Dixon’s blues number “Taildragger.”
The album was made while founding drummer Todd Nance was on hiatus due to personal reasons, temporarily replaced by Duane Trucks (Nance will reportedly be back in 2016). Panic percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz took a call to discuss the new album and the band’s upcoming return to the Lockn’ Music Festival in Arrington, Va., where the group will play a collaborative set with reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. The band will also return to Asheville to play a two-night Halloween run on October 30-31.
Widespread panic is known as a live band. What did you take away from the studio experience?
ORTIZ: I think it’s about getting a clean, polished sound that we’re all happy with. When we got together to make the album in January, there really wasn’t time to nitpick certain nuances, but [producer and longtime Panic collaborator] John Keane was with us and he knows how we like songs to be manipulated. We try to pick out the best solos and performances of each individual and create new things from that base. We have six different guys listening to things differently. That’s why it’s crucial that we listen together.
On this record you were willing to stretch out the songs, especially “Cease Fire” and “Jamais Vu.”
Back in the early days when we cut our first album, Space Wrangler, we were told songs needed to be three minutes, so they would be played on the radio. We tried it but eventually realized we needed to stick to our guns. Times have changed, and we’ve realized we need to proceed the way we play songs. We’re happy with the way they all came out, but personally I wish we would’ve put a few more songs on the record. There’s always a wealth of material.
I know the band shares all songwriting credits. How is a new Panic song typically written?
We usually just start with a groove that gets embellished. When we’re on tour we’ll rehearse at the venues, and that’s where the creativity starts. Maybe JoJo [John Hermann] will start a little chord progression and Jimmy [Herring] will pick up on it. Then Dave [Schools] adds a bass part and the drums come in. If the music is down, then JB [John Bell] will usually have some lyrics that will flow into the idea that’s been created.
What’s it been like for you playing with a new drummer, Duane Trucks, behind the kit since last fall?
I’ve been a percussion player since 1971, and I’ve played with thousands of drummers. One thing I’ve learned about being the percussion player is that you complement the drummer.
That being said, it was a challenge for everybody at first, and our biggest concern was making Duane feel comfortable with the transition. He’s 25 years old, and he’s really into the music. It’s been an awesome adventure, and I’ve noticed he’s progressed musically. Being in Widespread Panic is all about playing with the ensemble, having fun, and making it kick ass. He’s done that to the T.
Especially after losing founding guitarist Michael Houser to cancer in 2002, what’s been the key to keeping the band together for nearly 30 years?
The key is the music and the synchronicity of playing with each other. We’ve hit a lot of roadblocks but they’re not dead ends. When Mikey passed away, we thought it was a dead end, but he didn’t want us to give up. That’s given us the fuel to keep playing music and not worry about the extras that sometimes come with it. Through it all, we’ve been privileged to play for a super network of fans that stay loyal to the music.
The band has become known for the collaborative sets at the Lockn’ Music Festival, teaming up with John Fogerty two years ago and Steve Winwood last year. Why did you decide to go the reggae route and enlist Jimmy Cliff for 2015?
We saw Jimmy Cliff perform at the Dear Jerry concert in the spring, and at the time we were searching for someone to play with us at Lockn’. We asked and fortunately he wanted to join us. Right now we’re deciding which songs were going to do. We’ll definitely be doing his songs, and we hope he likes our representation of his music.
In 2016 Panic celebrates 30 years.
Do you guys talk about plans for the future?
It’s always open ended. If you start making plans, I think that becomes the weight in an anchor that can sink you. Our main thing is we don’t want to be predictable. We want to be spontaneous with our music, touring, and song selection for each individual show. That keeps us and the fans feeling fresh. When we get together at the beginning of a tour, we can feel the energy level rise. That’s how we know the drive and desire is still there.