The spirituality is in the randomness. That’s where the inspiration comes from.
story by Jay Gentile
So what’s the deal with all these hippie freaks and their obsession with Widespread Panic? Why are these damn “Spreadheads” so emotionally involved in this band? And is it allowed to listen to other types of music, like say garage rock or dance music, or do you have to listen to nothing but WSP bootlegs for the duration of your existence? And what if you don’t want a fucking fatty kind veggie burrito in the parking lot?
Chicago Innerview rang up longtime Widespread Panic keyboardist John “JoJo” Hermann to try to get some answers. Hermann was in his usual good spirits, as the band was gearing up for its first tour since a self-imposed year-long touring hiatus that followed their New Year’s Eve 2003 rocker in Atlanta. And for Panic fans, a year without seeing them live is a year too long.
Hermann, who has been busy happily changing the diapers of his 8-month old daughter Julia, said the Athens, Georgia-based jam kingpins took the last year off “just to be with our families.” The group has been crafting its unique brand of psychedelic Southern rock boogie since the release of their debut Space Wrangler in 1988, touring hard ever since while amassing one of the most devoted and loyal followings in live music.
I personally have been following WSP for over a decade, having first caught one of their blistering live performances as an unsuspecting 16-year old in 1993. I have held on to my fascination with this band longer than any other – even longer than that ugly Motley Crue phase in high school. And even though I have mostly outgrown my “hippie phase” and listen to all kinds of different music these days, I still hold a special place in my heart for this band that goes far above and beyond all others.
And I’m devoting the rest of this article to trying to answer one simple question: Why?
It just gets in your blood. It’s powerful, spiritual and damn fun to dance to. Unsure what else to say about it, I threw the question at Hermann to see if he could better explain the Widespread Panic phenomenon: “We’re a party band,” he said. “People come and they dance and have a good time.”
Obviously, attempting to get to the heart of the matter was going to be harder than I thought. So I changed tactics, asking him what he thought of the ubiquitous “jam band” label that pisses off so many bands in the genre who hate being pigeonholed as repetitive Birkenstock-clad stoners. “I don’t mind it,” Hermann said. “We do jam. It’s a better label than other things.”
Okay, but what do they think of all the neo-hippies who flocked to the band after the demise of patchouli-scented icons like the Grateful Dead and Phish? Do they feel as if they are meant to carry on the traditions of these live music legends and lead the jam band faithful to the Promised Land? “That’s probably the last thing on our mind – is trying to live up to anyone’s expectations except our own,” replied Hermann. He said the band encourages people to listen to other types of music and when told of all the Panic freaks and obsessives who worship the band from the aisles at shows, Hermann declared that “they must be relatives. They must be my mother.”
Fair enough. Nothing wrong with a little humor, but he’s still not answering my question. Maybe I should start talking about the tremendous energy of their live shows, an energy so intense and all encompassing that I have never seen it replicated to such an extent by any other band on stage. Ever. When asked what energizes Hermann on stage, his reply consisted of one simple word: “Beer.”
Uh, okay. Then could he maybe describe what they themselves are feeling on stage? “We just kind of bury our heads in our instruments,” Hermann said. “I’m surrounded by the keyboard. It’s my own little cubicle.” Hermann said that he still maintains the same level of excitement about the live shows as he had since first joining the band in 1992, “as long as we bring in new songs…for our own sanity.”
The sanity of the band was tested in August of 2002, when lead guitarist and founding Panic member Michael Houser died of cancer at age 40. The band made the decision to follow Houser’s wish that they continue to play on as a band. So the surviving members of WSP got Hermann’s friend and former Beanland bandmate George McConnell to fill in for the rest of the shows on the tour before he became a full-fledged member – later helping contribute to the band’s eighth and most recent studio album, 2003’s Ball.
While McConnell is a true guitar talent and one hell of a nice guy who stepped in when the band needed a friend the most, some longtime Panic fans still resent him and cling to some idea of a Panic utopia under Houser. “You can’t replace Michael Houser,” said Hermann. “The band is different now. As we record more new songs, the band develops a new sound. There’s no way you can re-create the magic that was happening before Mikey died. There’s nothing you can do but move on.”
And moving on is just what Panic is doing, with plans to unleash a smattering of new songs on audiences while touring heavily this year before releasing another album that Hermann said is tentatively planned for the early months of 2006. Hermann said that the band started rehearsing again last month and did a “round robin,” going around the room and hearing all the new songs that each individual band member had been working on over the past year.
Then they put the songs in action, in true “jam” form. “It’s like a jazz ethic…a spontaneous conversation,” said Hermann. “The spirituality is in the randomness. That’s where the inspiration comes from. It’s like we’re sitting around the table talking, except we don’t have to smell each other’s breath. Once you’ve been around a person so long, you almost start reading each other’s minds a bit. You can almost predict what the other guy is doing almost telepathically. It doesn’t get boring, something happens.”
And that would be as close as I would get to an answer to my question about what makes this band so powerful and so important to so many. My conclusion? It is not a contrived effort. It is not the result of pursuing an agenda. It is not the product of men with big egos like Trey Anastasio or Dave Matthews. It is a bunch of good friends sitting around talking to each other. It’s the band’s good friends in the audience that are interpreting this conversation, making individual personal connections with it and then combining their collective energy with the energy of the band to create one hell of a firestorm of chi. But then again this is pretty much what all bands do, isn’t it? So still I am left wondering why the feelings are so particularly intense with these modest Southern dudes.
You could say it’s because of the Panic family or community of like-minded individuals who follow the band, the friendly vibes from people around you, the drugs, shit like that. And while the show’s environment and the collective energy of the crowd surely has something to do with it, the feelings elicited from listening to Panic can be just as intense listening to it alone in a car. And I know it’s tough to walk from sore dancing feet after a Panic show, but I may never really know why. In the end there may be no way to really explain it, outside of experiencing it…
Widespread Panic :: Chicago Theatre :: April 7, 8, and 9.