Fans of legendary “jam bands” like the Grateful Dead and Phish are likely to also love Widespread Panic, a group from the musical hotbed of Athens, Ga., (R.E.M., The B-52s) that similarly enjoys improvising when performing live (please – don’t call it “noodling”). Panic has been honing its Southern rock with a touch of blues and jazz fusion sound since 1986, and has built a following that can only be described as rabid (the band holds the record for number of sold-out performances at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater, at 42). Catch them Tuesday, Nov. 5 at the Fillmore Miami Beach.
Dave Schools talked to Miami.com from New Orleans, where the band was performing for an extended Halloween weekend celebration.
How was your Halloween?
It was crazy. Halloween in New Orleans, I mean, what can you say? We’re doing three shows here. We do the costume thing, and we do the cover songs thing, which started with us doing “Paranoid,” the [Black] Sabbath song, off the cuff at a house party about 26 years ago. And it just grew into this thing, where we kind of go whole hog. We played “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead last night – I don’t think any hippie band fan saw that one coming [laughs]. That’s what it’s all about, though – tricks and treats.Sometimes our costumes tie in – our keyboard player, John Hermann, was resurrected from the dead as Liberace, and then we sang a Liberace-ized version of the WAR song “Spill the Wine.” So anything can happen.
What’s your live show going to be like down here?
Well, we always do two sets, probably about three hours of music. The Fillmore is great because it’s still filled with pictures of Jackie Gleason, and it’s still got that vibe. The dressing room is like his apartment that he had upstairs. So being the kind of band that we are, the environment plays a big part of the show. Miami is a city unto itself, and playing the Gleason just puts you in a particular state of mind – we usually rock it pretty hard there, and the folks treat us great.
You guys never play the same set list – how do you choose songs from show to show?
There’s a lot of factors, but mainly we just don’t wanna play what we played a couple nights before. We’ve got a batch of about 250 songs we can choose from, and the whole point of that is to keep us from going insane. We’ve never been the kind of band to go out and just play our greatest hits – not that we ever had any – but you know what I mean. If you’re playing the same song the same way you played it for 20 years, you’re either doing something really right, like The Stones – they’re not gonna change “Satisfaction,” you know? – or you’re doing something wrong because you can’t do anything else. And we don’t ever wanna feel like we’re doing something that we shouldn’t do. So the songs never stop evolving for us.
Are you guys to the point where you don’t have to rehearse anymore?
No, every now and then there will be a song that somebody decides we should play, and it might have been a year or two since we’ve played it, and that’s gonna get some rehearsal. And we’re always working on new music or trying to do something a different way. But really, you know, we like to say that we rehearse onstage. It’s about being in the moment with this band, and reacting and trying to create something different and new every night. There’s really no rehearsing for that.
You’re one of those bands with an incredible following, much like the Grateful Dead had. When you first started out, did you have something like that in mind?
No, what we had in mind was not having to have crappy jobs like most people have in college towns, like delivering pizza or tending bar. Even though our guitar player delivered pizza, and I was a doorman at a bar [laughs]. But the whole idea was not to have to do that for the rest of your life.
Have you ever performed with the Dead?
No, we have not, but I was out on tour last year with [Dead drummer] Mickey Hart – he’s a neighbor of mine out in California, and we put a band together and made a record when Panic took the year off. And I’ve been doing some work with Bobby Weir at his studio in San Rafael called TRI. So there’s always been a Dead connection. But I like playing with those guys because they’re elder statesmen, and they’re masters of their craft, and I never want to stop learning.
What inspired you to take up the bass?
[Laughs] The ugly truth is I was living with my mom in an apartment complex, and I really wanted to play the drums. But there was not going to be any 10-year-old learning to play the drums – that wasn’t gonna fly. So I went to the next best rhythm option, which was the bass guitar, which could be played quietly. Not anymore – I don’t play quietly anymore.
Did you ever follow up on your childhood dream to learn the drums?
No – I think I found out I’m just not coordinated enough to play the drums. I can only do two things at once, not four. And then you get into the realm of the Phil Collinses and Don Henleys – people who can actually sing and play drums. I might as well try to become a contortionist, you know?
What do you think of the term “jam band”?
You know, it is what it is. I’m not a big fan of stylistic terminology. I think it limits a band, especially a band like us – we dabble in all kinds of styles. I think it’s misleading, and I think there are a lot of people out there that might like some of the aspects of this band if it weren’t saddled with the “jam band” label. But then of course there are people who like that kind of music who may not know of us, and might come see us because of it. But for the average human being, when they hear “jam band,” they think of endless noodling. And we don’t like to do that. We’re a song-oriented band who likes to improvise collectively, just like the Allman Brothers were, or Led Zeppelin. And no one calls them jam bands. I think a more applicable term would be “road band.” Road dogs. Because that’s where we do our best work.