Widespread Panic: Southern Jam for the Soul

Words By Nicholas Stock (www.phatphlogblog.blogspot.com)
Photos By Nicholas Stock & satisfied1013

Widespread Panic tends to be the dividing line of jam. It’s either Phish or WSP in this scene. I’m one of those few; I think blessed souls that see the benefit of both. WSP has an older audience that likes to throw down, Phish is for the kids, but this week we will take a deeper look at the benefits of the loving a little Panic. It seems that it takes big shows to get me into bands for Phish it was my life-changing experience at Big Cypress, for Panic it was their two-night stand at the first Bonnaroo.

Widespread Panic hails from Athens, Georgia, which is highly regarded as the heart and soul of southern jam. Following along the path laid out by The Allman Brothers rather than other jam band stalwarts, they have risen to the top ranks of the musical elite. There is something truly authentic and pure in their sound. With John Bell’s raspy voice leading the way they have carved out their niche as the jam from America’s Bible Belt. I know no other jam band that is so divisive in our scene. You either hate or love them and there is little middle ground with WSP. If I had one criticism it would be that the have AC/DC syndrome or rather that most of their songs sound the same. However I would argue that that lack of deviation is what made them what they are today. And that is the band that holds the record for the most consecutive sold out performances at not only Red Rocks at 35 but also at Phillips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia, at 17.

They do alright for themselves, but that has not been without some inner turbulence. When Bell and Houser met in 1981, much of the cornerstone jams of Panic’s career were fleshed out then and there. Songs like “Chilly Water” and “Driving Song” were already written by the time that Schools came into the mix in 1984. On February 6, 1986, Houser called in Nance on drums for a charity event in Athens and dubbed themselves Widespread Panic after Houser’s previous issues with panic attacks. Sunny joined the band later that year and this was the beginning of 25 years of jam band glory. After adding JoJo in 1992, they played with this formation up until 2002 when disaster struck.

In early 2002, Houser was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After playing to a massive crowd at the inaugural Bonnaroo, Houser continued on with the band but ultimately left the tour after playing in Cedar Rapids on July 2nd. I was at that show. Galactic opened with House on vocals and it was truly something special. With an Iowans For Panic shirt draped over his stack Houser played the show of his life which would ultimately be he last time onstage with WSP. He died on August 10th, ending an incredible collaboration between Michael and John that was the foundation of Widespread Panic.

The choice of George McConnell who was a former band mate of JoJo’s in Beanland was a poor decision. The choice could have spelled the end of WSP, but in 2006, Jimmy Herring took over the duties as lead guitarist. I truly believe this was the stroke of genius that saved the band. Herring is one of the most technically proficient players in the world of jam. He has played with everyone from The Dead to Aquarium Rescue Unit. He may come off as a little stiff but one thing is certain: the man can rock. Widespread Panic today embodies that same spirit that began back in 1982; it is a living testament to the southern style of jam.

Let’s take a look back at that show in Cedar Rapids which was the last outing of the late great Michael Houser. They opened with a stellar “One Arm Steve”, and here is the rest of the set list from Panic Stream.

SET I: One Arm Steve, Pigeons, Airplane > Sleeping Man, Wondering > Rock, This Part of Town, Papa’s Home > Worry

SET II: Can’t Get High, Fishwater > Can’t Find My Way Home > Blackout Blues, Christmas Katie*> Jam**> I Walk On Guilded Splinters***> Drums****> Bear’s Gone Fishin’> I’m Not Alone, Makes Sense To Me

ENCORE: She Caught The Katy**

*with Randall Bramblett on saxophone
**with George McConnell on guitar, Randall Bramblett on saxophone
***with George McConnell on guitar, Randall Bramblett on saxophone, Stanton Moore on percussion
**** with Stanton Moore on percussion

You can listen to the show on Panic Stream at www.panicstream.com/streams/wsp

There was a level of urgency that is still present in the recording. I don’t think anyone knew it was Houser’s last show, but the band certainly sensed it was near the end as did their dedicated fan base. You can hear an uneasy but still powerful energy in Bell’s lyrics throughout the show. Listening back it is obvious, but at the time I was just stoked to see a great American jam band so close to home. I remember the police presence at this show was insane. This was during the days of Local Law Enforcement working with Federal Agencies with operation names like, Going Phishin’, No Incident, and Don’t Panic. You can align those with the tour that fits but the ultimate manifestation was lots of kids getting arrested. The most disturbing of which was seeing a 90 lb. hippie chick getting choke slammed by a cop dressed as a paramedic. Needless to say I spent my show in the safety of herd. Regardless of the outside issues and Houser’s illness, the music was top notch. The “Airplane” was transcendental as was “Wondering” with crisp segues that would not be seen for years to come. First set was pure Panic and the second set was a huge array of sit-ins that included McConnell, Georgia treasure Randall Bramblett, as well as Galactic’s Moore. It was a special night to say the least and one of the big reasons why I love seeing Widespread Panic. After this show I knew what was possible. It’s sad that the feeling was short-lived because of Houser’s death, but I take solace in the fact that I got to see why WSP is what it is today firsthand. The first set ended on a solemn note with “Papa’s Home” into “Worry”. It again foreshadowed what would come just a month later.

The second set was like a Panic carnival with a super sweet version of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”. It was a set where Widespread was constantly shifting gears, and shifting smoothly I might add. The Christmas Katie was absolutely huge with Bramblett coming onstage with his sax to help transform their sound and push them in another direction. Immediately afterwards, George McConnell came onstage to jam with the band for an extended period followed by Stanton Moore coming up for Dr. John’s “Guilded Splinters”. It was a very all-encompassing sort of night. We were seeing all of Panic’s many faces in the form of them just jamming away with friends. They ended Houser’s last second set with a beautifully built “Makes Sense To Me”. They brought McConnell and Bramblett out for the “She Caught the Katy” encore. It was just a solid show and it cemented my love for Widespread Panic. They brought their style and southern flair to the heart of the Midwest and took the opportunity to jam the roof off of a giant shell of a venue. When I found out a month later that Houser had succumbed to his very fast moving illness, I was both devastated and thankful that I at least got to see what this band was all about before the end. RIP Michael Houser.


Photo by Sastified1013


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