The Georgia State Capitol is not where you should find Widespread Panic, the legendary Athens rock band that once threw a free concert in its hometown that outdrew a typical Georgia Bulldogs football game. No, the Capitol is a place for politicians and pundits, bureaucrats and backbenchers. It’s not a place for the band that’s sold out Philips Arena more times—seventeen—than any other act. It’s certainly not a place for John “JB” Bell, the band’s cofounder. Never mind that he worked extra late the night before at the Fox Theatre, playing a marathon four-hour show that unplugged well after midnight. Or that he’s wearing a tie. It’s just that after twenty-five years, you’d think he and his bandmates would have veto power over a gig like this, even if the point is to honor the band on the occasion of its silver anniversary.
“Are there any Spreadheads out there?!”
Photograph by Jason Maris
That’s Keith Heard, a state representative from Athens, shouting into the House microphone. At forty-nine Bell is probably the average age of the lawmakers in the room on this chilly morning, but this crowd is not what you’d call a Panic demographic. One legislator mistakes Bell and the two bandmates accompanying him for R.E.M. Still, there are a handful of Spreadheads—as the band’s diehard fans call themselves—in the crowd. Like the lobbyist who was at last night’s show, his 184th.
As Panic percussionists Sunny Ortiz and Todd Nance lay down a gentle beat with a bongo and maracas, Bell, strumming an acoustic guitar, his hair swept neatly to the side, starts singing “May Your Glass Be Filled,” an affecting ballad about friendship. Bell’s voice is a malleable instrument; like that of the late Jerry Garcia, the front man of the Grateful Dead (a band to whom Panic is often compared), Bell’s voice can be surprisingly sweet. “I sing with whatever color the song needs,” he once said, “and that could be different pitches, different flavors, soft and pretty, or guttural.”
The performance is met partly with standing ovation, partly with sitting indifference. “We are fully whelmed to be here,” Bell, prone to wry humor, tells the room.
Later two dozen elected officials, black and white, line up to pose for photos. Fifty-seven-year-old Valencia Seay, state senator from Riverdale, dances as she enters and exits the view of the camera’s lens. Some legislators desperately attempt to connect, saying that their college-age or twenty-something children are devotees. One blurts out, “You guys rock!” Another, representing Monroe, reports, “Y’all are gods there.”
Gods. Back in 1986, the whole point was to make enough money to keep the fridge stocked with beer. Over the years, it got a lot bigger than that. Despite no hit songs, an abiding disdain for major labels, and a sound that refuses to be categorized, Widespread Panic has survived everything—the curse of the road, the atomization of the recording industry, the death of cofounder Michael Houser. More than survived, actually. Thrived. Widespread Panic, through tireless touring and a savvy Internet presence, has redefined what it means to be a successful band in the twenty-first century.