“Travelin’ Light” from the compilation album Choice Cuts
Fresh off a Halloween show in Asheville, Georgia-based rock band Widespread Panic continue their lengthy fall tour with a two-night stint in North Charleston. Their local concerts have become an early autumn tradition for the band and their fans. Bassist Dave Schools is eager to get into it all.
“When we come in and do a two-night weekend, it becomes a destination gig for a lot of fans from all over the country,” he says. “They’ll come in for our shows, but the Coliseum is kind of out of town, so it gives them a chance to get downtown and see things they haven’t seen. There are a lot of art galleries and great restaurants in Charleston … and clubs that have all sorts of music. Good times for everyone.”
Widespread Panic first formed in Athens in 1984 when guitarists Michael “Mikey” Houser and vocalist-guitarist John “J.B.” Bell hooked up with Schools and drummer Todd Nance. By 1993, the quartet had expanded to a six-piece with keyboardist John “Jo Jo” Hermann (formerly of Mississippi band Beanland) and percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz.
Earlier this year, Panic recorded a new studio album in the Bahamas with producer Terry Manning at Compass Point Studios (AC/DC. The Rolling Stones, Björk). The collection is slated to be released this spring on the band’s own imprint, Widespread Records. This will be the first release with the Panic’s new guitarist, Jimmy Herring, who played previously with such luminaries as The Allman Brothers Band, The Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends, and the Aquarium Rescue Unit.
Panic suffered a major loss in 2002 with the passing of Houser, but managed to move ahead. The founding member died at his home in Athens after battling pancreatic cancer. Guitarist George McConnell briefly replaced Houser in 2003. Herring officially joined the band last fall.
“Jimmy is a consummate professional. He really, really did his homework,” says Schools. “Having filled in for the Allmans and the Grateful Dead with various and sundry iconic guitar figures, he has a great idea about how you approach something like that. Until you get the chance to record with a band, you don’t have much of a canvas to make your own personal statement. He learned the signature licks that he needed to play, found the spots where he’d have room to improvise. There’s always the space between the songs on stage where we become whatever we are at the moment. He’s done a great job. He makes the old-school fans happy because he plays the licks that they’re looking for. I’m hoping they’ll give him a fair chance with the new stuff.”
A subsidiary of Sony Records recently released a sort of “best of” compilation titled Choice Cuts. The disc features selection of tunes from Panic’s formative years on now-defunct Capricorn Records.
“It’s a total music industry kind of thing that we always try to avoid,” laughs Schools. “Notice the very satirical Capricorn-like goat ready to be carved up into meat on the front cover [illustrated by Chris Bilheimer]. It’s a leftover remnant from our deal we signed with Capricorn back in 1990 — a standard deal that gave them seven records with an option for a live record and a greatest hits package.”
The band completed the studio albums and the live album and got out of their deal. Years later, the Capricorn catalog was picked up by Jive Records, then by Volcano Records, who exercised their right to put out a hits package.
“They actually asked us if we wanted to have an opinion about it, which is pretty cool,” says Schools. “We leapt at the opportunity to have a say-so. We also got to have a hand in the artwork. That’s why we managed to get something kind of funny, if anyone knows the history of our Capricorn era.”