Widespread Panic Savors Different Kind Of Success

Singer John Bell understands that most people have never heard of Widespread Panic.

Is mainstream America missing out on a great live band? Or is Widespread Panic not all that special?

Bell won’t say.

He just knows his 25-year-old band never tried for a hit single. It never adopted a conventional business model. It never gave a note of artistic control to record companies.

“Yeah,” Bell said, “in a roundabout way we’ve been stubborn about certain things.”

Photo: AP Photo
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, New Orleans, La.

Widespread Panic, which released its 11th album, Dirty Side Down, last month, gained its financial leverage on the road, where the band has grossed $20 million annually over the last decade to rank among Pollstar’s top 20 touring acts.

The band’s concert scene isn’t unlike what the Grateful Dead inspired during a 30-year career. A fan-owned website, EveryDayCompanion.com, which debuted in 1995, lists every show, song, setlist and venue Panic has played. There’s also a timeline of the band’s history.

“Some of these kids we see in the crowd are daughters of women who saw us when we were starting out, but the fans are really self-made, self-fulfilling entities,” Bell said. “The fun that they have, they make that fun. We happen to be the house band sometimes.”

Though Bell is the lead singer, there’s no single leader of the six-member band, but that vibe fits the band just fine.

“I wouldn’t say it’s complete anarchy at all times,” bassist Dave Schools said. “It’s not a body without a head, but one of the more applicable descriptions is a basketball team. Everybody can be a leader on any given night.”

The band was founded amid the hard-party craziness of Athens, Ga., in 1986.

Bell, Schools and guitarist Michael Houser were University of Georgia students who would drive to frat-house gigs in a lopsided Oldsmobile Cutlass. Houser, whose nickname was Panic, recruited drummer Todd Nance, a childhood friend, for the band, but the guys never knew if they’d ever be successful enough to even buy a used van to cart them around.

Over the next 10 years, however, crowds grew enormously. Widespread Panic headlined , and the . Next week outside Denver, three shows will extend the band’s venue record to 35 sellouts at Red Rocks.

But the band never lost touch with its “laid-backness,” as Bell describes an attitude that helped ease the grief of losing Houser to pancreatic cancer in 2002.

The band even stopped touring so it could take time to heal in 2004. When guitar veteran Jimmy Herring joined two years later, however, the emotional gap started to close.

Over the last several months, Schools has heard Houser’s guitar harmonies return to the stage “like a phantom.” Whether it’s John Hermann’s keyboards, Domingo Ortiz’s percussion, Bell’s rhythm fillers or Herring’s leads, Houser seems to be bouncing across the stage and into the night air.

“Whether it’s some subsonic or weird anomaly of the venue and the monitor system and everything else, it’s like, ‘Did you hear that?’ ‘Yeah, I heard that, too. Sounded like Houser didn’t it?’

“It’s weird.”

Just like the band itself.

Click here for the Widespread Panic website.