"Red Beans" from recent demos
"Charleston has to be one of the best cities in the country," says John "Jojo" Hermann on the phone with City Paper, speaking from his current home outside Nashville. "I always say, 'Please book us in Charleston!'"
It's clear that both Hermann and his main project, Widespread Panic, love this town. Just last November they lit the North Charleston Coliseum on fire with a two-night run that many Spreadheads agree were among their best shows of the fall tour.
For piano-playing Jojo, the Panic off-season just means an excuse to play front-man and book more intimate venues. This Saturday, he'll roll into the Music Farm with a Nawlins'-infused Professor Longhair tribute band that features Max Abrams on sax, Bill Elder (of the Nashville soul band The Dynamites!) on guitar, "Big Kev" Mabin on drums, Hunter Williams on congas, and Johnny Few on bass. It's a loose conglomeration that he first put together for Bonnaroo a few years ago, actually recruiting rhythm section Mabin and Few from his church in Nashville. (Talk about a reason to wake up early on Sunday!)
"We're doing a good variety of songs, even adding some Ray Charles and about seven or eight originals into the mix," says Hermann. "But we focus on the Longhair stuff, with lots of rag-timey, boogie piano." Jojo takes lead vocals for most songs, but he promises "lots of harmony — Johnny Few and Bill Elder can sing their asses off."
Born and raised in New York City, Hermann moved to Oxford, Miss., at age 24. He spent a little time in New Orleans before relocating to Atlanta in the 1990s, just an hour away from Panic headquarters in Athens.
In 2001, the multi-instrumentalist introduced a bluesy side project called Smiling Assassins. To the surprise of many Panic fans, he stepped up to the stage-front as lead singer and guitarist in addition to his piano duties. In 2004, the Assassins released their third album, Just Ain't Right on the Sanctuary label and followed up with several tours of the Southeast. The collection featured performances from Luther and Cody Dickinson (of the North Mississippi Allstars), veteran Ga.-based organist Chuck Leavell (a longtime Panic collaborator), and bassist Paul "Crumpy" Edwards (also of Barbara Cue).
Hermann's piano licks often cross over between projects, like Longhair's "Big Chief" arpeggio that turned into Panic's "Beehive Jam" in the early 2000s, and he considers his side projects a way of "keeping my chops up."
This week's show is just one of five on this tour, taking them from Tuscaloosa and Athens to here, then back down to Mobile, before concluding in Nashville.
"We knew it'd be fun to play Charleston on Saturday, and Monday night is a holiday in Mobile," says Hermann. (Mardi Gras actually began in the U.S. in Mobile, not New Orleans). "We end up at home in Nashville and do this yearly gig with a bunch of crawfish flown in to the Mercy Lounge. We just have fun with it and don't take it too seriously."
Mardi Gras is the perennial five-day weekend, and the boogie at the Farm is sure to be the highlight of festivities here in Charleston. (Don't count on beads, booze, and titties in our French Quarter anytime soon). Folks may have a lot to say about Widespread Panic, but ain't no one ever said Jojo doesn't know how to have a good time.