By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
With the passing of Jerry Garcia, not only did the Grateful Dead (thankfully and belatedly) end as a functioning unit, but also hordes of imitators wasted little time in vying for the mantle of chief jam band, top purveyors of nonstop guitar noodling contained in epic songs with absolutely nothing to say, played on (and on) as their minions hawked a seemingly endless surplus of patchouli oil and tie-dyed undergarments.
Beginning in the early '80s with "Porch Song" and "Driving Song," efforts whose music matched the originality of their titles, Michael Houser and John Bell began an unlikely popular ascension that saw Widespread Panic sell more than 3 million albums and pack venues such as Denver's Red Rocks Amphitheatre 23 times, proof positive that the masses have never been the greatest judge of either presidents or performers.
Along with the equally interminable Phish, Widespread Panic represents the worst inclinations of consumer capitalism and the senseless worship of instrumental prowess. Taking their cues from the latter-day excesses of Southern rock icons the Allman Brothers, Widespread Panic has rarely found a groove they could not pummel into oblivion, quite content to exploit the mindless, phallic-centered idolatry of all things elongated.
What's odd about the fanaticism surrounding Widespread is the refusal of their rabid followers to accept any criticism whatsoever, a trait annoyingly shared by their aging deadhead brethren. Acting as if anyone wanting an actual song amidst the soloing was some kind of right-wing, Nazi conspirator, the cult of eternal Southern boogie is content to live out psychedelic fantasies of the '60s with more interest in the potency of the weed on hand than on the music.
Widespread concerts are more "events" than musical performances, gatherings of the like-minded that most often resemble some mutated, neo-hippie version of Promise Keepers. Joyous and inebriated to the unadulterated extreme, bands such as Widespread Panic and Phish, much like the Dead, are antithetical to real rock 'n' roll, time wasters of the highest order, creating background music for a throng of professional stoners.
Even the death of Houser in 2002 didn't slow down the Widespread gravy train for long. They quickly recruited longtime band groupie George McConnell (who has since been replaced) and released Ball, supposedly a testament to Houser's wish that the band continue. Equally as bloated and time-consuming as previous Widespread releases, Ball preceded a thankful hiatus. Yet the reprieve was short-lived, as 2006 saw the release of Earth to America, the bands' ninth studio effort.
Still as popular a concert draw as ever, Widespread Panic has essentially created its own ganja-fueled oldies circuit, a plethora of excess unrivaled in today's crowded marketplace, a surefire cure for insomnia and a heaven for bootleggers and dimebaggers.