Even the loosest, freest musical movements need standard-bearers, those few acts whose rigorous work ethic keeps the younger whelps in line. And so it was that Widespread Panic, one of the earliest groups to build a dedicated performance-based following upon the demise of the Grateful Dead, became the quintessential Jam Band.
In a way, the "jam band" moniker was accurate. But Panic--you can tell a band has arrived when its fans refer to it in shorthand--always delivered a lot more than the insular, self-indulgent noodling that ran rampant in the jam scene. Most important, of course, the group was composed of excellent musicians who brought a wide-ranging instrumental prowess to the table. But Widespread Panic also wrote great songs, and not all of them clocked in at 30 minutes.
"We were really blessed," says Todd Nance, whose drumming has provided Panic's rhythm since 1986. "Everybody who came into the band wrote songs, so we were never at a loss for material. I think we've actually turned into pretty good songwriters over the years. Plus, we all had a lot of respect for songwriters. People like Vic Chesnutt, Eric Carter, Jerry Joseph and Danny Hutchens from Blood Kin--people like that were really the folks we listened to. For some reason a lot of people are surprised when they find out we listen to that stuff, but that's really where it started.
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"I guess if you're not a good songwriter," Nance concludes, "you'd better start getting heavy on the improv end."
It remains a stubborn misconception within the jam scene that the essence of creativity is to vamp and ad-lib endlessly and hope something interesting happens. But Widespread Panic's onstage experiments always remained rooted in the structure of the song. As a result, the band's performances were invariably tight and controlled, even in the middle of their frequent flights of improvisation.
Widespread Panic's newest and longest release, Live in the Classic City, somewhat paradoxically captures that element of the band's aesthetic. It probably won't be the first release snapped up by the newly curious--at three fully packed discs, it's definitely an investment--but in a way, that's a shame. Song for song, it's one of the band's tightest releases and perhaps the best introduction to Panic's considerable talents.
It's also one of their most eclectic sets, which is saying a mouthful. The country-tinged rave-up "Dying Man" segues effortlessly into the loping guitar-and-bass rocker "Stop and Go." The Dead-meets-Byrds nugget "Waker," a longtime concert favorite from 1999's Til the Medicine Takes, gets a royal full-band arrangement. The softer moments, such as the frequent melodic bridges between songs, are delicate without ever losing intensity. And occasionally, as on the smoldering, horns-fueled "Mercy," Widespread Panic shows itself to be a much more soulful band than many of us gave it credit for.
Of course, Panic honed its chops on the road from day one--it wasn't until Til the Medicine Takes, in fact, that the band released a studio album that fully delivered on the promise of its live shows.
"It's not as grueling as it used to be," says Nance of their current touring schedule; "there was a time when we had to stay out 200, 250 nights a year to pay the bills. We started out, really, as a college band. Our bread is buttered on the live side, you might say. We enjoy playing, but that kind of pace was a little extreme. So we're down to about 90 or 100 shows per year now." Thus the idea behind Live in the Classic City was to present as accurate a document as possible of the band's road show.
Presenting a complete April Fools' Day concert in their hometown of Athens, Georgia (plus additional material from the following nights' shows), Live in the Classic City has something of a living-room feel. Athens is the band's home turf, after all, and they're most assuredly preaching to the converted. But it's also immaculately recorded and mastered; for a band as endlessly bootlegged as Widespread Panic, the careful mix of Classic City sounds downright revelatory.
"We did the three-day series at Athens' Classic Center with this in mind," Nance reports. "We actually asked people not to tape those shows, so that what we'd have would be a fairly rare record of the performances. As much recording as we do, and we roll tape every night, we'd never documented and released an entire concert from start to finish on CD. So we wanted to try it."
That is, of course, the very nature of the bootleg circuit--archiving and presenting a unique moment in an artist's life, warts and hiccups and all. The success of Panic's single-performance Live at Oak Mountain DVD, Nance says, suggested that it was time for the band itself to get in on the act.
"Oak Mountain went DVD Gold," Nance says, sounding somewhat incredulous himself. "So maybe that's what folks want. Is the whole thing entire? I don't know. I suppose we'll find out."
Musical quality and content alone, however, still don't account for the fervent loyalty of Widespread Panic's listening base. The band's status is such that subcultures have sprung up even within the fan community. Through a series of unofficial Web sites, Panic aficionados have established such unique networks as "The Gateway"--a mailing list and Web site for fans recovering from substance addiction.
"Hmm--wow, I haven't seen that," says Nance, intrigued. "But...well, it sounds corny as hell, but I think a lot of times the band just provides a soundtrack for people to get together with their friends. I know about a half-dozen married couples who met through our shows, and things like that. So it really is a kind of extended family, and when you get a family together like that you're going to have people who spring from that connection to another one. Yeah, from there you're going to have support groups, and bad kids and good kids, fat kids and skinny kids. I mean, we've been around for 16 years now. Hell, we're almost ready to work through another generation."
Having assumed the mantle of elder statesmen long ago--as if the band had any say in the matter--Widespread Panic has also had the opportunity to see its style, if not always its substance, influence a younger group of performers. Their upcoming tour begins at Tennessee's Bonnaroo Festival--"kind of the Lollapalooza of improv bands," as Nance describes it. "I don't know about our band specifically, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a lot more attention paid [to the improv scene] pretty soon."
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Widespread Panic has even been the subject of a kind of anthropological-musical documentary, The Earth Will Swallow You, which traces the threads of influence among the current and upcoming generations of Southern singer-songwriters.
The Earth Will Swallow You, currently on a limited theatrical run, is generating positive reviews for its sophisticated presentation of a topic that could have easily generated fan-boy fulsomeness. (The film screened at Trees on June 18.)
"I was pretty happy with it," says Nance, who screened the film with the rest of the band. "We approached the project with a lot of caution, but the Hanson brothers, Geoff and Chris [producer and director, respectively], aren't fans of only our music, and they really understood how to portray the connections better than we did. So I don't think it comes off self-serving. And it's really more about our inspirations and the people we look up to--there are scenes of us meeting some of those people, like Taj Mahal, for the first time. I thought that was cool; plus, it took us away from having to be on camera all the time.
"Of course," he muses, "I hear there are people touring with the movie now. Like some kind of Rocky Horror thing. I'm going to have to find out a little more about that. But that's how it's been for us since the beginning. We skipped everything else and went straight to the midnight circuit."