I first heard of Widespread Panic during a visit to UGA in 1988. The downtown shop Wuxtry Records had just stocked vinyl copies of the band's debut, Space Wrangler. I snagged one for eight bucks.
Months later, I caught my first Panic show at the Uptown Lounge, which had a capacity of around 350. The band was still a quintet (no keys). They'd only been playing together for two and a half years, but they were very tight, proficient, and versatile. And they looked very hairy — especially compared to the jangly indie/college radio acts in town at the time. In the years since, I've witnessed their triumphs and the challenges that followed.
I thought their Southern-fried bluesy thing had more in common with the Allman Brothers and NRBQ than the more psychedelic noodling of the Dead. Panic's bassist Dave Schools laughs about categorization these days — especially on the eve of the band's 25th anniversary.
"When you're in a band, you're continually evolving, making records, getting gigs, and considering yourself lucky to be doing it," Schools says. "And then, inevitably somebody else reminds you that it's a watershed moment. It did sneak up."
Widespread Panic marks their anniversary with gigs at the Classic Center in Athens on Thurs. Feb. 10 and Fri. Feb. 11. The venue is situated on the original spot where the original four members first performed as Widespread Panic 25 years ago.
"These anniversaries give you a chance to look back and take stock of how things happened," Schools says. "When someone reminds me of some statistic like one that says that in 1990 we did over 250 shows, I think, 'God, that sounds like a lot of hard work and a lot of miles.' On one hand, that's the case, but on the other hand, it's really nice work if you can get it. And we were getting it. We must have been doing right to be able to play that many shows in a year — and then survive it."
Schools arrived in Athens in 1983 to attend UGA. It didn't take long for him to find like-minded musicians with which to jam, perform, and party. Guitarists John "JB" Bell and the late Michael Houser (who died in 2002) had already been working on tunes together when they enlisted Schools in '84. As a quartet, they began playing at keg parties and small clubs.
Todd Nance agreed to play drums for the band for the first time at their show at the Mad Hatter Ballroom in 1986. It was a wise move.
"We used to have a Rolodex of drummers," Schools. "The Rolodex ran dry right before that big gig. Todd really fit in."
In 1987, the band welcomed percussionist Domingo Ortiz to the lineup. The next year, they released Space Wrangler on Atlanta's Landslide Records. A self-titled Capricorn debut in 1991 kicked off an 11-year relationship with the label. Keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann joined Panic in 1992. Guitarist Jimmy Herring signed on to replace Houser in 2004.
"We've always called the shots, and I won't say that it wasn't for lack of wishing that we might have landed that enviable pipe dream of a record contract," says Schools. "We realized that if we want to be viable, we needed to figure out our own model.
"The important thing to get across is that a lot of the models we set, we did out of necessity," he adds. "It wasn't like we had this great plan of independent anarchy. People just weren't that interested in what we had, and they didn't see any commercial potential for one reason or another. But we believed in it, and we were having fun doing it."
Widespread Panic will tour the Southeast in April as well, including two shows at the Civic Center in Asheville (April 8-9) and one at the Township Auditorium in Columbia (April 12). Visit widespreadpanic.com for more.