Widespread Panic: Still Rolling Strong
By: Tim Dwenger
For nearly 25 years Widespread Panic has redefined Southern rock. Built on classic songs and inspired musicianship, it's always been more than just the music; it's the relationship the band has cultivated with their fans. There's a whole generation of people who have had the privilege of growing up following this musical force with obsession. A grinding juggernaut of gritty, testosterone fueled jam rock; Panic has clawed their way up through the small dive bars and clubs of the Southeast to become one of the most successful touring bands in the country, routinely filling arenas and amphitheaters with throngs of rabid fans. The journey has not been without setbacks, defeats and heartbreaking losses, but the experience as a whole, the rollercoaster," as percussionist Sunny Ortiz calls it, has been an amazing ride that looks like it will continue for years to come.
Ortiz took some time out to speak with JamBase during a busy week where he found his band receiving the inaugural Road Warrior Award at Billboard magazine's annual Touring Conference and turning back the clock, in a manner of speaking, when they took the stage at the intimate, 1,000 person capacity Irving Plaza in New York City.
JamBase: I understand you headlined a benefit for The Bill Graham Memorial Foundation at Irving Plaza in New York City this week. Can you tell me about that night?
Sunny Ortiz: It had been probably ten or twelve years since the last time I saw David Graham, who is one of Bill's sons, so that was a real treat. And the other treat was, of course, to be able to perform at Irving Plaza again [see pics from that night here]. It is always fun for us to go to The City," but this was a very special occasion for us and even though it was in the middle of our break we thought, as a unit, that it would be a shame for us to refuse such a gracious invitation. We had a great time, and it is kinda nice to go back and play a little bitty intimate venue like that, but it went too quick for me.
JamBase: I know tickets were snatched up immediately. What was the energy like in there?
Sunny Ortiz: Being in the city is such an amazing time for us and the energy level was incredible because everybody is so jam-packed in there and you can actually see people. It was just raging. It was wild and ridiculous, which it should be in New York City. I understand that the tickets went pretty fast and that is the unfortunate part about it. I guess there are some other venues that they could have chosen but I believe that Irving Plaza is now called The Fillmore" and since we haven't played at the original Fillmore in San Francisco it was an honor for us to be in that venue knowing all the traditions that Bill Graham bestowed upon The Fillmore West in San Francisco.
Did you ever get a chance to meet Bill Graham?
I first met Bill in Telluride in 1991 when we were playing a festival there; I can't remember the name of the festival but it was a multi-day event and I know that on our day The Allman Brothers were playing. Our self-titled album had just come out and we were out touring, and we got an offer to come up and do Telluride. Bill Graham was there and, of course, introduced us. Somewhere in our archives there is a picture of Bill holding our CD backstage at that show, hugging it almost. He looks so serene, so surreal. I am trying to get a copy of it for myself. It is quite a unique and special picture.
Bill was very quiet but very firm when he spoke. He obviously knew what he was talking about and you just wanted to milk him for all of the knowledge and the stories that he had, but there were just so many. He was just constantly, constantly on the go. It was so sad when we heard about his passing, but it is just one of those things, life goes on, life goes on.
Switching gears a bit, I've got to ask you about New Year's Eve. After ringing in the New Year in Georgia for your whole career as a band what made you decide to break that tradition and take the party to Denver this year?
We just thought it was time that we did something special for the people of Colorado. Colorado has always been our second home because that is pretty much where we cut our teeth as a touring band. We toured there extensively in the mid-80s and got a lot of help from Jerry Joseph and Little Women. They were the ones that got us out there. I remember that our first show in Colorado was supporting them in Steamboat at The Inferno, and then we did a host of other gigs with them in that run. I think it lasted almost a month. We hit probably every ski resort known to mankind that first time out there.
A lot of things obviously change in the world of Widespread Panic and we thought this year would the perfect time to switch it up. We've got a great support act and that makes it even more special and we are all very excited.
That support act you mention is Yonder Mountain String Band, and I was wondering how you decided to bring them on board for the run?
They have a great following in Colorado and we thought it was a great package and thought that the fans would really like it. That's what makes it exciting for us, when the fans get excited. We extended an invitation for Yonder to join us and they were so gracious to accept. I am excited because they are such great players and there is great potential for us to do something together, some intermingling onstage perhaps.
There are some rumors going around that after the shows in Denver the band will be taking some time off. Will there be another hiatus for Panic in 2009?
I have heard through our office, because I never read the chatboards, that a lot of people think that we are taking the year off next year. We are not. So, we've got to put that little fire out. We are definitely coming out and working and while I can't tell you the exact dates that we'll have for Red Rocks, I can guarantee that we will be there during the summer of 2009.
That's good to hear because a lot of people have been saying that there will be no tour until the fall.
I know where you are coming from. I am even getting it from my kids. My oldest is 14 and my youngest is 10 and they are going, Dad where are we going next year?" and I'm going, What do you mean?" And they said, Well, we heard that you guys are taking the whole year off." When Mikey passed away, bless his heart, we took 2004 off but they were a little bit younger. So, while they knew that he had passed away they didn't realize that it meant that I was going to be home for the whole year.
We will be there and we will be working in 2009.
Maybe a little less touring, but not a hiatus?
Not a hiatus. A little less?" I don't know about a little less." To us there is no a little less." To me, it's not work. To me, it is socializing, its conversation, its anything but work and anything but touring. It is like being in a traveling minstrel show, I guess, maybe a circus. It is a way of life for us. It may sound corny but it really is. When we were growing up as young kids, teenagers, in the back of our minds we always wanted to be full time musicians and probably never thought we could sustain ourselves doing this. When I met the boys in '86 they were attending UGA and on their way to being golf pros, chemistry majors, business majors and then something happened that put everything on hold.
Our motto as a band has always been that we are willing to go to the edge and then think about it, and then actually dive off the edge and see what happens. A lot of people say, They just don't do it anymore," and I kinda think that they just don't see that we are doing it and they need to step aside and let someone else that gets it get it and pass it back to them.
Some people have said that there seems to be a new life in the band lately, and I was wondering if that comes from having Jimmy Herring in the band? What is it like to have him as a full time member?
Jimmy Herring is an angel that we knew about back in the '80s. We connected with him when he was in Aquarium Rescue Unit. He is a virtuoso and a very studious player. He gives 110-percent every day, not only every night but everyday, too. He's a sweetheart of a guy; we are almost derelicts compared to him. He's been around the block a couple of times and when things were looking gloomy for us he was the one so nice to us and offered his assistance, but he was committed to Phil & Friends and The Dead and we had to look at other alternatives. When the second calling came he was available.
Is there a new Panic album coming any time soon?
The writing in the band has just kept getting better and we have some good new material that we haven't even pulled out yet. We have so much material that we are going to have to start using it. So, that's just a good problem to have. It has gotten to the point now where we are asking, Where do we want to go record? Where do we want to go do this next project?" That seems to be the thing that is holding us back. We want to record, but we also realize that we need to see what happens. We aren't in any rush. We feel that we can do a lot of woodshedding in the next six months and come up with some hot stuff and maybe take it on the road and experiment with it like we've always done - just throw it out there and see if we get any bites from anybody who wants to sustain us, wants to invest or wants to make good use of it as a new product.
Anything we do as Widespread Panic is with everyone's input. There are obviously thousands of studios around Athens but who knows, we might do something in Nashville, we might do something in Atlanta. There are lots of options for us to dabble in, and it is just a matter of where everyone feels comfortable. That's the big name game right now, the comfort level. When we all agree that we are ready the ball starts rolling. We start sending out feelers for producers, studios and then we need to block out the time. If all that fits together then we are ready. There are just so many things involved. Who knows what form this monster is going to take.
So, through all of this, it's been more than 20 years that you've been playing together; what keeps you going?
Some say 25 [years]! Well, I guess when we reach 2010 it'll be 25 years. The music business is one big rollercoaster ride, and we've learned that through a lot of good times and a lot of bad times. The thing that keeps us bonded together and our feet on the ground is knowing there's a lot of folks that enjoy, love and really care about Widespread Panic. It's that give and take, that communication, that excitement that we've always gotten from our fans that just keeps us going on and on. Our way of giving back to these folks is giving that piece of music, which is our life. That energy is still there, that drive, that magic. Whatever you want to call it, it is still real strong. We love what we do and we are going to keep on doing it probably for a pretty good while now.