The latter months of 2009 have been a busy season for Athens, Ga., rock band Widespread Panic. The long-running Southern-styled quintet took a much-needed break last winter, but picked up the pace with a number of selective concerts and short road trips paired with The Allman Brothers Band, all of which led up to this fall's massive U.S. tour.
Panic's Charleston concerts, scheduled for Fri. Nov. 27 and Sat. Nov. 28 at the Coliseum, mark yet another special home-away-from-home anniversary for the band, as local fans consider it an autumn traditional to boogie and groove with Panic at the venue.
"We only played about six shows the first half of the year," says bassist Dave Schools, who recently relocated to Sonoma County, Calif., after spending 25 years in Athens, Ga. He just got hitched, too.
"It's really good right now. I'm freshly married, and I wanted a chance to be around with my wife so we could establish our dominant traits," he laughs.
Widespread Panic's story began in 1984, when Schools helped assemble guitarist Michael "Mikey" Houser, vocalist-guitarist John "J.B." Bell, and drummer Todd Nance as a bluesy quartet in Athens. By 1993, the increasingly busy quartet had earned a national fan base, and expanded the lineup to include keyboardist John "Jo Jo" Hermann and percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz.
Houser sadly passed away in 2002. In mid-2006, skilled rock/prog guitarist Jimmy Herring (of The Allman Brothers Band, The Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends, and Aquarium Rescue Unit) officially joined the band as the lead guitarist. Understandably, the last six years have been a period of major transition for the band, peppered with heavy bouts of road work. Going into 2010, refreshed and encouraged, the band might be in its most artistically and mentally healthy state since Houser's death.
"It's still a long road ... we finally got the band back to where it was able to create anew with Jimmy, who's fully integrated and hazed and everything," Schools says. "It's been a long seven years since Mikey passed away — and it was a long, long time [together] before he passed away. So it seemed like the right thing to do when we upped the gear-shift as this year moved along."
Panic booked special holiday club gigs in the Atlanta area in recent years as part of an ongoing "Tunes for Tots" charity series, with the proceeds benefiting music departments in Georgia public schools. The band's charitable tradition continues this season. As part of a fall tour through the Southeast, the band organized a series of food drives.
"Our friends at the Lowcountry Food Bank will be on hand at the front entrance taking canned good donations," says Panic management. "Fans are encouraged to bring protein-rich, non-perishable foods. Every can helps." A portion of the proceeds from the two Coliseum shows will benefit the Lowcountry Food Bank.
"All of these charity events are really important to us," says Schools. "And the food drive thing comes from a fan and friend, Josh Stack, who started the organization Panic Fans for Food. In a couple of towns, not only does it turn out to be something really good for the local food banks, but it also maybe helped take a tarnish off the band's reputation, where the idea is that the band's fans get a little too crazy. At the concerts, there's often a giant pyramid of canned goods by the time it starts. For us, things have always been on a fan-by-fan level, which has suited us well."
It sounds like Schools and his bandmates are on the same page philanthropically and musically these days. Recent recordings and performances demonstrate a comfortable chemistry and a few new stylistic directions. Listening to the tunes on their latest studio effort, Free Somehow (produced with a bit of extra gloss by veteran studio man Terry Manning), one detects a more sophisticated interplay and a more complex melodic and rhythmic texture. Free Somehow's acoustic guitar-based titled track, the exotic "Three Candles" and the slinky "Already Fried" particularly stand out.
Compared to the rawer, Southern-smacked fusion of blues, rock, and soul on earlier albums, Panic's more refined and laid-back music sounds downright formal.
"I think that's the combination of our maturity, and what we want out of ourselves as songwriters, mixing with that academic approach that Jimmy brings to the band," says Schools. "He can take all the knowledge that he has, apply it to in-your-face rock, and what you get is still very different and really cool. It's the same game as it's always been for us, as far as composing new music. It's really like, 'What can we do that's new for us, and what can we do that sounds like us?' It's really about what makes us happy.