Widespread Panic, the preeminent Southern blues-driven rock and roll band in America, is coming to D.C. this weekend. Tickets sold out within hours of the concert’s announcement weeks ago, but they’re available on eBay for $100 a pop if you’re lucky.
Founded in 1986 by four students out of the University of Georgia and joined by percussionist Sunny Ortiz and key man JoJo Hermann, Widespread Panic is named after its original lead guitarist Michael Houser. In his days, Mikey was prone to panic attacks and suffered from severe stage fright, performing his entire career sitting down while his singular, effect pedal-free solos sent everyone else soaring out of their seats.
Houser passed away from pancreatic cancer on August 10, 2002. Starting in September 2006, Jimmy Herring joined the band.
Herring’s fresh presence seems to have jolted the band back into prime form. Not that they ever struggled on stage, but the death of a founding member will shake any band to its foundations. On the interim tours between Mike’s passing and Jimmy’s joining, old friend George McConnell and former guitar tech Sam Holt admirably shared the guitar load under heavily undeserved scrutiny from grieving, lifelong fans. But fans wanted more.
Now that Jimmy has settled into what appears to be a permanent position, Panic has been performing beyond their expected awesomeness. From what Panic fans have seen and heard of their recent shows, the unpredictable Panic is back. They have debuted three original tunes already on this spring tour, while continuing to re-invent the classic tracks that have led them this far.
Granted, Widespread Panic has been playing the same essential group of songs somewhat the same way for more than two decades. If you’ve been to two-dozen shows, you’ve probably heard them play the same “Porch Song” a few times. But the question is, are you ever disappointed when they do? There is a timeless nature to this music, something that won’t get old no matter how many times you listen to the same version of the same set of songs. (If you want proof, listen to Disc 2 of Live in the Classic City.)
The drifting, intense and alternately bright and harrowing rock and roll is not for everyone. Panic spans the spectrum from what The Grateful Dead called “Space,” down to the most basic old-home, back-country rhythm and blues stolen originally inspired by the Rolling Stones.
Founding member, lead singer, rhythm guitarist and amateur mystic John Bell sings with a scratchy, soul-soaked voice, rich in Southern twang, sometimes story-telling improvised lyrics as the big Spirit consumes him.
The magnanimous Dave Schools plays the bass. He is a big guy, as he holds down the heavy rhythms at the low end of Widespread’s sound. The wild dark curls atop his head sink past his shoulders but rarely rest there when the stage fan is blowing, throwing them up to one side as he rolls along, claiming momentary spotlight with a flurry of fingers thumping up and down his fret before settling back into the groove for everyone else to build upon.
Schools stands on the audience’s right side of the stage, making it the preferable place to boogie. Come Friday and Saturday night, almost everyone entering the Warner Theatre will have a proverbial sign on their head that says “I Came To Get Down.”
Whether or not you are one of the lucky souls to enter the Warner Theater this weekend (which, by the way, is within walking distance of our dear Foggy Bottom) may be up to the eBay gods by now. On one hand, it’s too bad they aren’t playing a big arena so everybody could go for cheap. But then again, it’s probably a good thing they still know better not to; they must dig the intimacy.
Widespread Panic will be at the Warner Theatre Friday and Saturday. Tickets have been sold out for a month. “Earth to America” is their most recent album.