Widespread Panic: Still Rolling Strong

By: Tim Dwenger

Widespread Panic
For nearly 25 years Widespread Panic has redefined Southern rock. Built on classic songs and inspired musicianship, it's always been more than just the music; it's the relationship the band has cultivated with their fans. There's a whole generation of people who have had the privilege of growing up following this musical force with obsession. A grinding juggernaut of gritty, testosterone fueled jam rock; Panic has clawed their way up through the small dive bars and clubs of the Southeast to become one of the most successful touring bands in the country, routinely filling arenas and amphitheaters with throngs of rabid fans. The journey has not been without setbacks, defeats and heartbreaking losses, but the experience as a whole, "the rollercoaster," as percussionist Sunny Ortiz calls it, has been an amazing ride that looks like it will continue for years to come.

Ortiz took some time out to speak with JamBase during a busy week where he found his band receiving the inaugural Road Warrior Award at Billboard magazine's annual Touring Conference and turning back the clock, in a manner of speaking, when they took the stage at the intimate, 1,000 person capacity Irving Plaza in New York City.

JamBase: I understand you headlined a benefit for The Bill Graham Memorial Foundation at Irving Plaza in New York City this week. Can you tell me about that night?

Sunny Ortiz: It had been probably ten or twelve years since the last time I saw David Graham, who is one of Bill's sons, so that was a real treat. And the other treat was, of course, to be able to perform at Irving Plaza again [see pics from that night here]. It is always fun for us to go to "The City," but this was a very special occasion for us and even though it was in the middle of our break we thought, as a unit, that it would be a shame for us to refuse such a gracious invitation. We had a great time, and it is kinda nice to go back and play a little bitty intimate venue like that, but it went too quick for me.

JamBase: I know tickets were snatched up immediately. What was the energy like in there?

Sunny Ortiz: Being in the city is such an amazing time for us and the energy level was incredible because everybody is so jam-packed in there and you can actually see people. It was just raging. It was wild and ridiculous, which it should be in New York City. I understand that the tickets went pretty fast and that is the unfortunate part about it. I guess there are some other venues that they could have chosen but I believe that Irving Plaza is now called "The Fillmore" and since we haven't played at the original Fillmore in San Francisco it was an honor for us to be in that venue knowing all the traditions that Bill Graham bestowed upon The Fillmore West in San Francisco.

Did you ever get a chance to meet Bill Graham?

Sunny by Jay Blakesberg :: 11.19.08 :: Irving Plaza
I first met Bill in Telluride in 1991 when we were playing a festival there; I can't remember the name of the festival but it was a multi-day event and I know that on our day The Allman Brothers were playing. Our self-titled album had just come out and we were out touring, and we got an offer to come up and do Telluride. Bill Graham was there and, of course, introduced us. Somewhere in our archives there is a picture of Bill holding our CD backstage at that show, hugging it almost. He looks so serene, so surreal. I am trying to get a copy of it for myself. It is quite a unique and special picture.

Bill was very quiet but very firm when he spoke. He obviously knew what he was talking about and you just wanted to milk him for all of the knowledge and the stories that he had, but there were just so many. He was just constantly, constantly on the go. It was so sad when we heard about his passing, but it is just one of those things, life goes on, life goes on.

Switching gears a bit, I've got to ask you about New Year's Eve. After ringing in the New Year in Georgia for your whole career as a band what made you decide to break that tradition and take the party to Denver this year?

We just thought it was time that we did something special for the people of Colorado. Colorado has always been our second home because that is pretty much where we cut our teeth as a touring band. We toured there extensively in the mid-80s and got a lot of help from Jerry Joseph and Little Women. They were the ones that got us out there. I remember that our first show in Colorado was supporting them in Steamboat at The Inferno, and then we did a host of other gigs with them in that run. I think it lasted almost a month. We hit probably every ski resort known to mankind that first time out there.

A lot of things obviously change in the world of Widespread Panic and we thought this year would the perfect time to switch it up. We've got a great support act and that makes it even more special and we are all very excited.

That support act you mention is Yonder Mountain String Band, and I was wondering how you decided to bring them on board for the run?

Sunny & Schools by Casey Flanigan
They have a great following in Colorado and we thought it was a great package and thought that the fans would really like it. That's what makes it exciting for us, when the fans get excited. We extended an invitation for Yonder to join us and they were so gracious to accept. I am excited because they are such great players and there is great potential for us to do something together, some intermingling onstage perhaps.

There are some rumors going around that after the shows in Denver the band will be taking some time off. Will there be another hiatus for Panic in 2009?

I have heard through our office, because I never read the chatboards, that a lot of people think that we are taking the year off next year. We are not. So, we've got to put that little fire out. We are definitely coming out and working and while I can't tell you the exact dates that we'll have for Red Rocks, I can guarantee that we will be there during the summer of 2009.

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