Dixie Jam: Widespread Panic starts a huge fall tour in the South this month.
In the early ‘80s, Widespread Panic was born at the University of Georgia out of the casual dorm room jams of lead singer John Bell and lead guitarist Michael Houser. After becoming a popular fixture in Athens’ reputed independent music scene, the band gradually spread its dynamic brand of psychedelic Southern groove rock to huge audiences across the country. Now it’s been 25 years since the band’s first official show in 1986, and along the way the group has endured its share of triumphant highs and devastating lows. The Dixie jamband’s road-warrior diligence built a loyal fan following that led to sellouts of monumental venues like Red Rocks Amphitheater and Madison Square Garden, as well as a free blowout concert in the streets of Athens that attracted 100,000 people back in 1998. There has also been evolution through adversity, specifically when the band lost Houser to cancer in 2002.
After two and a half decades, the band—which now includes Bell (lead vocals and guitar), John Herman (keyboards), Jimmy Herring (lead guitar), Todd Nance (drums), Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz (percussion), and Dave Schools (bass)—is planning an indefinite hiatus to start in the early part of next year. But before the extended break, Panic is celebrating its anniversary with a tenacious touring schedule that includes a huge run through the South this fall and a New Year’s Eve show in Charlotte. Bell chatted with BRO about the band’s biggest moments and his upcoming time off.
After 25 years, can you pinpoint a pinnacle moment for Widespread Panic?
The first time Mike and I were playing together, and we realized something special and different was going on. That has to be the pinnacle moment, because it led to everything that has come since. Playing venues like Red Rocks and the streets of Athens were really big things, but they happened because of bigger things like knowing we were a band that needed to stay together.
Through trials and triumph, what’s been the key to keeping the band vital for so long?
It sounds trite, but we always remember to have fun with it. We just keep writing new music and try not to be too serious—just serious enough to keep our jobs.
The band recently reconnected with Athens with two big shows to start the year, and the recording of your latest album, Dirty Side Down. Why was the town a great starting point for your band and many others?
It’s a great starting point for a lot of bands, because it’s a college town with a bunch of kids partying all the time and a lot of opportunities to play music. Meeting our main producer, John Keane, early on had a lot to do with it as well. He’s a great producer, who’s done great things for our band. When we’re in his studio, we are always comfortable and we always explore new stuff that we wouldn’t without his influence.