The buzz started during Wanee 2011. It seemed inevitable (before it actually became fact) that the Allman Brothers Band would eventually end their glorious run. Who would carry the torch forward?
The first four years of the Wanee Music Festival featured the ABB family at the top of the bill: Gov’t Mule, the Derek Trucks Band and Oteil and the Peacemakers. In 2008, Bob Weir and Ratdog were also a major draw. A year later, it was Little Feat.
2010 was different. Widespread Panic, a band essentially equal in stature to ABB (if not longevity), was added to the line-up. The two bands had co-headlined a tour several months earlier. For two epic April nights, we were treated to back-to-back Panic and Brothers (ABB closing, of course). Next year’s Wanee had Panic coming in to headline Thursday night, but the buzz was on.
Deadheads, of course, hoped that it would be Furthur. Spreadheads were praying that the six-headed monster, as WSP is affectionately known, would get the nod. (Fans also affectionately call them WSMFP, but that’s another story.) Furthur came in for two nights at the 2012 festival to the delight of (almost) everyone. In 2013, it was Panic again for two nights. That amped up the conversation even more, but it deflated a bit when neither band appeared in 2014, as the Trey Anastacio Band and Umphrey’s McGee both raged at the glorious Spirit of Suwannee Music Park.
Then came THE ANNOUNCEMENT. You know, that one. The one where Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks said they would concentrate on their respective music projects (Gov’t Mule, the Warren Haynes Band, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band) and no longer perform with the Allman Brothers Band. THAT was followed not long after by the announcement of the final ABB shows at the Beacon in September.
Forget buzz. Rumors and speculation ran rampant, especially on the always-entertaining Wanee Forum and on Facebook. Panic? Furthur? Mule and TTB? Inquiring minds were dying to know.
Widespread Panic is the perfect fit for this festival. They come from just up the road a piece (Athens, Georgia), and they earned their stripes touring relentlessly throughout the south, up and down the east coast, and finally nationally (and internationally as well). More importantly, they are leading members of the Southern music family that is at the very heart of Wanee.
From modest beginnings 30 (thirty!) years ago at the Uptown Lounge in Athens and various fraternity houses and college shows to New Year’s at the Fox and selling out Madison Square Garden, through the Sit and Ski tours, Hallowe’en extravaganzas and lots of House of Blues shows, Widespread Panic has built an enormous fan base through hard work and superb musicianship.
They helped to found the H.O.R.D.E. tour in 1992 with Phish, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, the Aquarium Rescue Unit and the Spin Doctors. They have played with almost every band on the jam scene and have worked horns into the mix for a variety of events, most notably Hallowe’en outings with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and similar groups. WSP has also joined forces on stage with rock legends such as Steve Winwood and John Fogarty.
They weathered the death of founding member and band namesake Mike “Panic” Houser in 2002. Houser’s last set of shows included the inaugural Bonnaroo, which Panic headlined when it was primarily a jam event. After several years with George McConnell, the band asked Jimmy Herring to join them. Herring’s resumé is ridiculous; he began with the Aquarium Rescue Unit (and it looks like there is going to be a reunion tour of some sort, by the way!), starred in Jazz is Dead, and played with the Dead and with Phil and Friends (along with Warren Haynes) in addition to a variety of other projects. He was the perfect fit for the band that is the perfect fit for Wanee.
Widespread Panic has played almost every major festival there is, including Lockn’, High Sierra, Wakarusa, Hangout, AllGood, Gathering of the Vibes and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. They’ve played Red Rocks an amazing 52 times. In fact, they hold records for the most sold-out shows at Red Rocks, Oak Mountain, the UNO Lakefront Arena and the Phillips Arena in Atlanta.
Why? Because they are awesome! “They bring the heat,” fans like to say. Their setlists are structured in much the way the Dead’s setlists were. There are great songs, some (near) ballads to slow the pace down a bit, flat-out pedal-to-the-metal rockers, jazzy workouts, and tunes that offer springboards into long jams. WSP has many great original songs, but they also delight in performing cover songs. During the St. Augustine show last October, for instance, they played Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” and Black Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots,” both excellent renditions. And that is typical almost every show.
John Bell is an engaging frontman. He is one of the great Southern gospel belters, along with Haynes and JJ Grey, among others. His soulful, honest approach is undeniable. Like Bob Weir’s role in the Dead, Bell also adds tons of jazzy rhythm guitar underneath Herring’s blistering leads.
Many fans clamor to line up in the Schools Zone, waiting for bassist Dave Schools to drop some bombs and lift the music up from the bottom. There are a handful of bass players you would regard as the best in the jam world, and Schools is one of those few. It is a blast hearing him sing songs such as “Blight” and “Flat Foot Flewzy.” Also, he has Godzilla on his amp.
JoJo Hermann is a superb keyboard player with a complete set of toys (OK, NO keyboardist ever thinks he has enough toys): Hammond B3, electric and acoustic pianos, synthesizers, and the mighty, mighty clavinet. His playing seemed to explode right about the time he acquired his clavinet in 1996. He is a very, very funky player, and his piano work in particular adds brilliant color to Widespread Panic songs, and his Mississippi Hill country roots greatly influence his sound.
Original drum Todd Nance did not make the tour that began last October due to a family situation. In his drum chair sat Duane Trucks (yep, another one). Nance has many devotees who love his contribution to the band, but Trucks seemed to jump-shift the band up a notch or two, with very positive results. He meshes perfectly with uber-percussionist Sunny Ortiz. It appears the chair is his for a while if not permanently. If that is the case, Nance will be missed, but the band hasn’t missed a single beat.
If you were searching for Widespread Panic’s equivalent of the Dead’s Barton Hall show at Cornell (05/08/77), it might well be the Huntsville show at the Von Braun Center, coming up on its 19th anniversary April 3rd (1996). JB is known for his humorous remarks at the beginnings and ends of sets; one of his best is at the beginning of the second set, as he offers “It ain’t rocket science” before launching into “Diner.” There are hundreds upon hundreds of live shows available for listening or download on www.panicstream.com in addition to the dozens of excellent live recordings released by the band. If you are in search of the heat, you might check out Biloxi 10/12/14; it is ridiculous.
Widespread Panic will certainly embrace their role as Wanee headliners, carrying this magical festival into the future. If you are a fan, then you knew all of that already. An UN-fan? Give them one more shot, please. Never seen them before? Fasten your seatbelts, kiddies!
Here are seven great reasons Widespread Panic will rock the park:
BELL. HERMANN. HERRING. ORTIZ. SCHOOLS. TRUCKS.
And they might play “Tie Your Shoes!” Just sayin’…
Photos courtesy of Tami Emory and Brian Hensley.
A thousands thanks to Tami and Charles Emory for their editorial assistance!