Widespread Panic hooks up with Yonder to shake the can on New Year’s Eve

:: Widespread Panic ::
:: with Yonder Mountain String Band ::
:: Pepsi Center ::
:: December 30 & 31 ::


By Timothy Dwenger

A raging juggernaut of gritty testosterone fueled southern jam rock, Widespread Panic has clawed their way up through the small dive bars and clubs of the Southeast to become one of the most successful touring bands in the country, routinely filling arenas and amphitheaters with throngs of rabid fans. The journey has not been without setbacks, defeats and heartbreaking losses, but the experience as a whole, “the rollercoaster,” as percussionist Sunny Ortiz calls it, has been an amazing ride that looks like it will continue for years to come.

Ortiz took some time out to speak with The Marquee during a busy week which found Panic turning back the clock, in a manner of speaking, when they took the stage at the intimate, 1,000 person capacity, Irving Plaza in New York City. “It was such a treat to be able to perform at Irving Plaza again. It is kinda nice to go back and play a little bitty intimate venue like that,” said Ortiz. “The energy level was incredible, it was just raging, it was wild and ridiculous which it should be in New York City.” The show was a benefit for The Bill Graham Memorial Foundation and took place during Billboard magazine’s annual Touring Conference, where Panic were the recipients of Billboard’s inaugural Road Warrior Award, recognizing the band’s “work ethic, steadfast dedication to touring and commitment to the art and craft of live performance.”

The Irving Plaza performance was the first time that Panic worked with The Bill Graham Memorial Foundation and, as Ortiz recalled some fond memories of the legendary promoter who essentially created the concert industry as we know it today, it seemed to be a perfect fit. “I first met Bill in Telluride in 1991 when we were playing a festival there. He, of course, introduced us and somewhere in our archives there is a picture of Bill holding our self-titled CD backstage at that show, hugging it almost. He looks so serene. I am trying to get a copy of it for myself. It is quite a unique and special picture,” said Ortiz.

A southern rock institution on par with The Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd, Widespread Panic has held tightly to its southern roots and home base in Georgia. Since they began touring together as a band, Panic has rung in the New Year at home in Georgia. This year, in a move that surprised many people, the band decided to bring the party to Denver and throwdown at The Pepsi Center for a two night run to close out 2008. “We just thought it was time that we did something special for the people of Colorado. A lot of things have obviously changed in the world of Widespread Panic and we thought this year would be the perfect time to switch it up. We’ve got a great support act and that makes it even more special and we are very excited.”

Ortiz went on to talk about the long-term connection that Panic has had with Colorado.
“Colorado has always been our second home because that is pretty much where we cut our teeth as a touring band. We toured there extensively in the mid-’80s and got a lot of help from Jerry Joseph and Little Women. They were the ones that got us out there. I remember that our first show in Colorado was in Steamboat at The Inferno supporting them,” said Ortiz. “It is just so beautiful out there. Maybe I’ll get to see some snow while we are there this time.”

The “great support act” joining Panic on the bill is local bluegrass act Yonder Mountain String Band. “We thought it was a great package and thought that the fans would really like it. We extended an invitation for them to join us and they were so gracious as to accept. I am excited because they are such great players and there is the potential for us to do something together, some intermingling on stage,” he said.

Ortiz also mentioned Yonder’s performance at The Ogden Theater on Dec. 29th that will serve as the informal kick-off of the New Year’s run, so who knows who might show up on stage that night. Let the rumors start to fly!

Ortiz also made a special point to set the record straight on a rumor that has been swirling through the scene recently. It has been reported that Panic will be taking a break from touring in 2009 and he was adamant that there is no truth to that story. “I have heard through our office, because I never read the chat-boards, that a lot of people think that we are taking the year off next year. We are not. So we’ve got to put that little fire out. We are definitely coming out and working and while I can’t tell you the exact dates that we’ll have for Red Rocks, I can guarantee that we will be there during the summer of 2009,” he said.

This news will come as a welcome relief for fans who endured a year-long hiatus in 2004 that came on the heels of the loss of founding member and lead guitarist Michael Houser in August of 2002 to pancreatic cancer. As anyone can imagine, the last several years have been tough for these veteran rockers and the band has understandably faltered a bit in the eyes of some. The giant shoes of Houser were filled by George McConnell, and while he was with the band for nearly four years he endured a lot of abuse from fans who missed Houser. He received hate mail, even death threats, and would look out to concert audiences and see negative signs waved in his direction. Maybe it was the timing but McConnell never really seemed to gel with the band and, as a result, they didn’t really seem to be returning to form. In August of 2006 McConnell left the band mid-tour and it wasn’t long before the much anticipated announcement was made that Jimmy Herring was joining the group.

In addition to an extremely talented cast of musicians, the positive and realistic outlook that the band seems to have is a critical part of their success. “The music business is one big rollercoaster ride,” said Ortiz, “and we’ve learned that through a lot of good times and a lot of bad times. The thing that keeps us bonded together and our feet on the ground is knowing that there are a lot of folks that enjoy, love and really care about Widespread Panic. It’s that give and take, that excitement that we’ve always gotten from our fans that just keeps us going on and on. Our way of giving back to these folks is giving that piece of music, which is our life. To me it’s not work. To me it is socializing, it’s conversation, it’s anything but work and anything but touring. It is like being in a traveling minstrel show, I guess, maybe a circus. It is a way of life for us. It may sound corny but it really is. That energy is still there, that drive, that magic. Whatever you want to call it, it is still real strong.”

:: Widespread Panic ::
:: with Yonder Mountain String Band ::
:: Pepsi Center ::
:: December 30 & 31 ::

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