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A Quarter-Century of Widespread Panic

Oct. 19, 2011
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It's rare for bands to last 25 years. It's rarer still for bands to stay together that long without losing the camaraderie and sense of purpose they had when they first started playing music. Now celebrating their 25th anniversary, Widespread Panic may have the best chemistry of any band with two-plus decades of history. At least that's the impression one gets from keyboard player John Hermann.

"You know, we're getting along better than ever now," Hermann says in a recent phone interview. "It's weird. We just get along so well. I think just musically everybody is so happy. I think there's a real stability in the band right now. I just savor every day out here [on tour]."

The level of satisfaction within the group, he says, stems from the willingness to encourage all band members to contribute musical ideas, both during songwriting and recording, and on the stage, where Widespread Panic is famous for improvising and reinventing songs.

"Every time I walk onstage I am just so thankful to play in this band because it's so much fun onstage because you pretty much get to do your thing," Hermann says. "You can do what you want. You're part of a team, but you get to improvise all the time. I have so many friends [that] play in bands where they do the same set every night and have to play the same way every night. At this point, I don't think I could ever go back to that."

That's not to say there haven't been trying times. The most difficult challenge came in 2002, when guitarist Michael Houser was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Houser toured with Widespread Panic into summer of that year, but succumbed to the disease in August 2002. George McConnell filled the slot until July 2006, after which Jimmy Herring, a former member of the Allman Brothers and Phil Lesh and Friends, became the newest member of Widespread Panic.

"It's just been a great chemistry with Jimmy," Hermann says. "He has blended in so well on the improvisational thing, on taking us to new places ... I feel like I've grown a lot musically because of things that Jimmy's brought in. Yet, he still maintains that formula of improvising and playing for the moment. He's just blended it all in perfectly."

The band's 11th and latest album, Dirty Side Down, marked a reunion of sorts for the group. After working with Athens, Ga.-based producer John Keane on several albums, Widespread Panic had recorded its two previous albums, 2006's Earth to America and 2008's Free Somehow, with Terry Manning at his studio in the Bahamas. For Dirty Side Down, the group returned to Athens to record with Keane.

"It was just like coming home, like we never left, back right where we left off, and just such a comfortable setting," Hermann says. "We basically spent a month together. We just holed up, and it was really, really enjoyable. It was like we were back playing in college bars again."

Dirty Side Down
is a bit more laid-back than recent Widespread Panic albums. There are a few first-rate rocking tunes (the gritty title track, the bluesy and grooving "Visiting Day" and the driving "Cotton Was King"), but much of the album's personality emerges in songs such as the relaxed country-tinged ballad "This Cruel Thing," the easygoing "Clinic Cynic" (which mixes hints of jazz and country into its rock sound) and the understated blues/rock of "Shut Up and Drive."

Hermann says the band is mixing in songs from Dirty Side Down with tunes from its extensive back catalog in its live shows. As usual, the band plans to vary its song selections from night to night, and fans can expect the songs from Dirty Side Down to have evolved a bit in the live setting.

"Once we play [a song] live, we just take it to new places, stretch it out, take it in new directions," Hermann says. "That's the fun of it."

Widespread Panic returns to the Riverside Theater for three performances Oct. 20-22.


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