After a nearly two-year hiatus, the sextet has found itself anchoring pretty much every major music festival on the summer docket – from headlining Bonnaroo to helping recharge Lollapalooza – amid an expansive nationwide tour.

The band continues on the road from September 1 through October 29, headlining its own shows in halls amphitheatres and arenas, and playing Farm Aid 2005, and the new event.

It’s a tall order, even for a band which built its success on its relentless touring

The return to the Bonnaroo main stage earlier this summer was particularly charged with musical and emotional depth for Widespread Panic.

During the early morning of June 22, 2002, founding member Michael Houser played guitar with the band on that same stage as it closed the inaugural Bonnaroo, much the same as he would any other show: seated on a small wooden chair watching John Bell, his best friend since college, howl the chorus of the rock revival “Tallboy,” backed by Dottie Peoples and her gospel choir.

Though Houser’s playing stood up to the occasion, he looked very much like what he was, a relatively young man dying with increasing speed of a terminal illness – pancreatic cancer.

In the ensuing weeks, his condition worsening, Houser, known to friends and fans simply as “Mikey,” issued a statement through the band’s web site. “I am at my home in Athens,” he said, “surrounded by my family and being well taken care of. In the words of Lou Gehrig, ‘Though some of you may have thought I have caught a bad break, I feel like the luckiest man in the world.'”

One month later, on August 10, he died. Houser was adamant about his wish that the band keep playing through his illness and after his passing, yet many were justifiably skeptical.

Nearly three years after his friend’s death, Bell seems at ease with the major changes in the band’s existence. “It’s good to be back,” he says lightly. “I always knew we were going to come back. I hope nobody’s too freaky about it.”

Houser’s presence and playing was part of Panic’s signature sound and there was no way to recreate that particular magic.

Instead, the band has added George McConnell, the guitarist who stepped into the Panic as temporary replacement for Houser when he become to ill to tour. McConnell’s playing has added a more aggressive edge along with a sense of continuity.

“We were going to take a break it before Mikey’s illness,” Bell remembers. “But then, well, he got sick so we were hanging with – so we were still going to play. And then when he moved on, then we decided, we should still find out where we are and get familiar with that before we take time out. I don’t think it would have – it’d just confuse matters.

“So this way, we’re going to be our new Widespread Panic selves, and have some familiarity of that to take with us over the break.” Pausing, he begins to laugh. “We’ve just got to remind George, you don’t get a break every other year.”