Twenty years ago, on the release of their debut album Space Wrangler, Georgia-based band Widespread Panic was casually strolling into a curious role. A club band known best for their Allmans-style jamming, lengthy sets, and encyclopedic rock knowledge, they were becoming the amiable great-uncle of the post-R.E.M. Athens music scene, a shaggy-haired sage standing to the side of the alt-rock corner of things.
In 1988, the core members of Panic were already seasoned musicians full of confidence and great road stories, making wise decisions, giving more than they took, and singing about the brighter side of life. Through the late '80s and early '90s, they broadened their audience by touring more and more outside of the Southeast. They influenced a generation of H.O.R.D.E.-minded bands and collaborated with a variety of jazz, rock, and funk greats. They continually packed music halls across the country, developed a loose and somewhat experimental recording style, and earned respect as a premier jam band.
This year, with almost the same team of players intact, Widespread Panic remains on track, aiming to find new musical adventures and to entertain loyal audiences.
Panic returns to the North Charleston Coliseum this weekend for their annual fall visit. According to their management, this is the last tour for the band before they "go on hiatus until late 2009" — a well deserved break for the road-weary band.
"I feel the same way I felt 20 years ago," says drummer Todd Nance, speaking last week while en route to a gig at the Mud Island Amphitheatre in Memphis. "Well, I don't feel as strong as I felt 20 years ago, I'll have to admit that [laughs]. But I still can't sleep the night before I leave on tour."
In 1984, Nance, one of four founding members hooked up with guitarist Michael "Mikey" Houser and vocalist/guitarist John "J.B." Bell, and bassist Dave Schools. By 1993, the lineup had expanded to a six-piece with the addition of keyboardist John "Jo Jo" Hermann and percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz.
Panic suffered a major loss in 2002 with the passing of Houser, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer. Guitarist George McConnell, an old bandmate of Hermann's, briefly replaced Houser for a couple of years. Guitarist Jimmy Herring, who played previously with such luminaries as the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends, and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, officially joined the band in 2006.
"With Jimmy, it's so easy to play," says Nance. "At times, I'm just trying to keep up with the boy, which I can't really do because he's so fast! You know, when Mikey left us, it was a struggle. On stage, it was a struggle. You could hear it. We were trying our best. Until Jimmy came along, it had not reached that point. But now it has. It's probably become a little more sophisticated in a way — not so much in the backline, but more so in the frontline on his end. Jimmy really raises the bar a little bit, you know?"
The band's 2006 studio album Earth to America was a 10-song comeback produced by veteran studio man Terry Manning. Panic's latest studio effort, the 11-song Free Somehow, also utilized Manning, who oversaw the addition of brass, strings, and a healthy dose of reverb on several tracks. It was their first serious studio session with Herring as a full-fledged, musically initiated member.
"In the last couple of years, it has really come along," Nance says. "It feels like the old days. But there was a four-year period where it did not feel good. When Free Somehow came out, I thought it was a really good album, but live, we hadn't rediscovered it yet. Now, when we walk off stage, we do it with smiles on our faces instead of wrinkled foreheads."
For more from City Paper's conversation with drummer Todd Nance — and a rapid-fire "Drummer Name Association" exercise — log on to music.ccpblogs.com.