Who needs a hit? Twenty-five years in, Widespread Panic has mastered the sound of success.
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.
Eighteen hours earlier, the band, all six of them, are slogging through sound check at the Fox. This is no rote exercise. They will spend nearly two hours honing Panic-flavored cover versions of two classic songs. Up first, “Sultans of Swing.”
“Are you gonna play it just like the record?” bassist Dave Schools asks lead guitarist Jimmy Herring. “Or put a little Jimmy into it?” The result is true to—but distinct from—the original Dire Straits version.
Applying their twist to other artists’ work is a Panic hallmark, one that has helped them become an enduring box-office bonanza at venues even as modest record sales and constant snubbing across the radio dial limit traditional means of exposure. By most recording standards, their official output has been modest: just eleven studio and eight live albums in twenty-five years, and the highest that one has ever charted is twenty-seven.
It’s the live shows—as many as 175 in a year, although they’ve slowed down that pace—that have ensured the band’s success. Panic tours, which have visited every contiguous U.S. state save North Dakota, have grossed up to $20 million annually. This month the group returns for the sixth year to Manchester, Tennessee, to play the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.
In person, their sound—Southern rock infused with blues and jazz—creates a hypnotic effect among listeners, typical in the loosely defined genre of so-called jam bands whose family trees intersect with the Grateful Dead’s. In a few hours, the Spreadheads will drift into what seems a trance—a few transported there by illegal substances, still others by alcohol. (Widespread Panic has, according to comanager Buck Williams, set arena records for the amount of beer its fans buy.)
These square pegs fit none of the round holes of the record industry—but that’s just one consequence of being labeled a jam band, a description that doesn’t begin to capture the musicians’ varied talents. Keyboardist JoJo Hermann, for example, was classically trained and has an affection for New Orleans blues legend Professor Longhair. Ortiz injects Latin and African influences into his beats.
Patterson Hood, front man for Athens-rooted Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers, is friends with the band. “They certainly have roots in the jam band scene, and I’m sure that over the years they’ve been aware of how things like that can be a blessing and a curse,” he says. “It’s a blessing because it’s been part of the butter on their bread. But as we all know, the thing that makes you can also hem you in if you’re not careful, and I’ve always felt like they transcend their so-called genre. They’re great players, a fantastic band, and underrated in the songwriting department.”
Bell himself bristles at the jam band label, which can imply a haphazard approach to performing. Indeed, a Panic show is carefully orchestrated. The band’s repertoire includes nearly 250 songs, about 150 of which are covers. One rule governs each night’s set list: If it was played at any of the previous three shows, it won’t be played tonight. Exceptions are sometimes allowed, like for showing off new music. Arriving at the set list is a collaborative process; band members will argue more over where to order takeout. If rule number one of show business is to give the people what they want, Widespread Panic wants no part.
“We’ve always had the most success when our fans accept what we want to play,” Schools says.
This has been Panic’s MO since Monday nights twenty-five years ago at the Uptown Lounge, the long-gone Athens nightspot–pool hall whose doorman is immortalized in the Panic song “One Arm Steve.” Back then the cover was $1, and if One Arm knew you, he might let you in for free.
No opportunity to play was beneath them—an unfinished construction site where the partygoers wore hard hats, a high school postprom gathering on a riverboat, a debutante ball. One North Carolina crowd consisted of the bartender and one couple. The band’s pay was a pile of quarters that the barkeep pulled out of the pool tables. They played one gig 200 feet inside a North Georgia copper mine, the entrance sprinkled with sawdust, psychedelic lights flashing on the walls. A return engagement brought out the local authorities, panicky over Spreadheads clogging a two-lane road to the cave. Flexing their legal imagination, the locals cited promoters for conducting a parade without a permit.
Panic even tries to tailor the set list to the circumstances—although the appearance at the Fox, coming on Valentine’s Day, brings thematic challenges. Hermann says, “I think we have one song with the word ‘love’ in it.”
Before the show, Herring leans back on a comfortable couch near the Fox’s lavish bathrooms, frenetically plucking the strings of his security blanket, an untethered electric guitar. The sound is so faint, you have to lean in to recognize the unmistakable riff from “Sultans of Swing.”
A tireless perfectionist known to return to his hotel room still adrenalized from that night’s concert and play solo deep into the night (“I’ll mess up something in a song and be mad at myself”), Panic’s relative newcomer remains aware that he stepped into some LeBron-sized shoes. They belonged to Michael Houser, who, with Bell, founded what would become Widespread Panic back in 1982 when both were undergraduates at the University of Georgia. Bell’s love was Motown and singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens, while Houser, who would become the band’s lead guitarist, brought rock sensibilities to the partnership.
Athens in the early 1980s was a musical incubator like no other place in the world. The setting offered equal opportunity, largely devoid of the cutthroat nature that pits band against band, player against player, in the magnet cities of Nashville, New York, and Los Angeles.
Ultimately Houser and Bell signed up Schools, then drummer Nance. (Ortiz—a latecomer, like Hermann—held off committing until Panic started making more money.) Their choice of artists to interpret—the Grateful Dead and Traffic, Van Morrison and Bob Marley—reflected the friends’ eclectic tastes and hinted at the genre-crossing tack Panic would take.
In early 1986, the band answered an invitation to play an Aid for Africa benefit at Athens’s Mad Hatter Ballroom. Widespread Panic, a name inspired by Houser’s occasional panic attacks, had begun.
Bell remembers his first paycheck. “Sixty-eight dollars, forty-four cents—something like that,” he says. For two weeks’ work. Young bands don’t get steady paychecks, but Sam Lanier instituted the practice soon after coming aboard as band manager in 1987. He wanted to make Widespread Panic more businesslike, encouraged them to take more paid gigs. At first some members wondered why they didn’t just divvy up all the proceeds at the end of each night. But the formality offered affirmation that they were professional musicians, that what had begun as a lark could evolve into a career.
“It told us that somebody else outside our families—not just our parents—believed in us,” Bell says. Health benefits, profit-sharing, and 401(k) retirement plans followed. The setup has given the band vital flexibility, enabling them to sidestep major labels when the mood strikes and go with their own Widespread Records, birthed in 2000. Last year’s studio album, Dirty Side Down, appears on the band’s own label and ATO, a label cofounded by Dave Matthews and Michael McDonald.
“We wanted this to be as big as it can get without losing what the music is all about,” Bell says. The band’s egalitarianism plays out in ways both small and big. For instance, to determine an album title, a sheet of paper is taped to the wall so any member can write a suggestion. Credit, however, goes to all. Likewise, songwriting publishing rights are shared equally, and all lend a writing hand—though anecdotal accounts from the band suggest Bell shoulders a disproportionate amount. The formula curtails jealousies and eliminates rifts over whose works get selected for albums. Hermann credits the format with being the single most important factor to explain their endurance.
Another? “Because JB doesn’t quit,” Hermann says.
Though Bell takes pain to spread the credit—part of his reluctance to perform at the Gold Dome was his worry that it would single him out at the expense of his mates—he is now the band’s guiding spirit. Still, the all-for-one attitude engenders in the band the esprit de corps of a football team, even if their homes are now scattered among five cities in three states, from here to California.
“That circle is tight,” says Williams, who with Lanier comanages the band. When one has gotten out of line, “they’ve covered for each other. They won’t rat on each other.”
In 2002 Houser was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As his health faded, he traveled on tour in a separate bus, sitting in on shows with a guitar when he could summon the energy. “You’re not throwing me away like a burned-out alternator in a car,” he told them. Any sentiment for a hiatus after his death was squelched by Houser himself, who urged them to carry on.
Though Williams maintains that Houser’s passing nearly led to a breakup, the band scoffs at such notions. Bell phoned a musical acquaintance, Herring, with an invitation to step in. He declined, citing obligations, but four years later came aboard. Although a full-fledged member of Panic, he still sounds like an outsider when he refers to the band: “They are real; they are pure. They don’t follow trends or fads. They stick to their guns.”
Houser died on August 10, 2002, just months after the cancer was detected, but he very much remains a part of the band as the lead guitarist emeritus of sorts. Management still cuts him a check. The earnings go to his family.
At intermission fans stream into the lobby. A few bypass the beer lines to visit a table covered in candy and bedecked with balloons. It is a hub for Panic disciples who have dealt with drug and/or alcohol addiction. The band gives tacit approval for the outreach effort, known as the Gateway, to operate at venues with sufficient space.
Volunteers sit behind the table, conducting impromptu AA meetings among concertgoers. “Hi, my name is . . .” They bat around a balloon; those who wish to share their tales grab it and take the floor.
Devan, who claims sobriety from multiple substances for three years, is catching roughly his 100th Panic gig. After getting straight, he was initially hesitant to rejoin the Spreadheads, concerned that the scene might unearth his bad habits. The fear has long passed. “I enjoyed the shows then,” says Devan, a former Atlanta resident who flew in from Colorado. “The difference is, I remember them now.”
Casey, a veteran of eighty shows, would stumble drunk into the Gateway gatherings before he quit imbibing two years ago. Casey would leave the arena remembering “bits and pieces” of the evening. Now he claims total recall. Attending the shows is a form of therapy. “It keeps me centered,” he says.
Panic shows often have the feel of a reunion among fans. They’re also a way for the band to cultivate new ones. As Panic’s fans have aged, Williams has been intent on exposing the band to the next generation. In April he booked Big Gigantic, an electronic group from Colorado, to open for Panic in Alabama.
The Spreadheads’ love for the band is also no doubt due to Panic’s charitable work. Over six years, annual benefit concerts have collected more than $650,000 to purchase band instruments for Georgia public schools. Bell’s golf fundraisers have generated nearly $2 million for research on spinal muscular atrophy, from which his goddaughter, Hannah, suffers.
Backstage at the Fox, the sixty-something Williams, clad in casual sport coat and running shoes, exudes calm amid the commotion. Williams founded and owns the Nashville-based Progressive Global Agency, a booking company whose clients include R.E.M., Dead Confederate, and Pretty Lights. He has been in the trade for so long that Bill Berry—the retired R.E.M. drummer—was once his office boy, fetching Wendy’s burgers for lunch.
After Williams became comanager in 1996, he set to work strengthening the connection between the band and its fans. While many acts forbid fans from taping their shows, Panic allowed bootlegs. A concert ticket doubled as an informal license for fans to audiotape the concerts. While the practice didn’t mean any money for the band, each bootleg served as free advertising for Panic and its shows.
As technology evolved, Williams saw an opportunity: offer the fans authorized recordings of each show, for a price. Today almost every show is taped from the soundboard and uploaded to the band’s website, where fans can buy a recording for $11 or more, depending on the quality. In the six years the band has been selling recordings this way, 3 million shows have been downloaded. An experimental revenue stream has become a gusher.
And it’s not the only one. During a typical year, between $12 million and $15 million in revenue pours in.
But there’s still something missing: Panic has never had a commercial hit among its nineteen released singles.
Tinsley Ellis, a frizzy-haired Atlanta blues-rock guitarist and singer who is two levels below Panic on the fame meter, sits plopped in a folding chair just beyond the side of the stage. Ellis—who guest-appeared an hour earlier on “Born Under a Bad Sign,” the other tune that ate up much of the sound check—has known the band since its infancy. He recalls asking, “Which one of you is the band leader?”
“They looked at each other,” Ellis says, “as if to say, ‘Nobody.’”
Ellis wishes they would score just one big hit so they can attain household-name status. Bell, though, shudders at the notion of being obligated to perform the song at each tour stop, having told record companies from their past that it’s not the band’s cup of tea.
Says Ellis, “They have eschewed the path of the business model for the music. It’s a beautiful thing.”
It’s past midnight before Panic launches into the final song of the night. The crowd leaves happy, and so do the Fox Theatre stagehands. Because the show ran so long, they’ll collect overtime pay that will come straight from Panic’s pockets. As masters of their own destiny, it’s a choice the band members can make without repercussions.