We're backstage at Berkeley's Greek Theatre, and Sam Holt is already doing two jobs. In addition to meeting me for press on his band Outformation and their solid full-length debut, Tennessee Before Daylight, he's also making sure that Widespread Panic is ready to roll for the evening's show that starts in about one hour. Sam is not only the lead guitarist and a primary songwriter and singer for Outformation, he's also Panic's guitar tech. For most, this would be daunting. Working the crew for a touring juggernaut like Widespread Panic is a loveless, full-time-plus job. It basically never ends; you are always on-call, and there's always something that needs doing. Trying to get a young band off the ground is also a full-time job, but all this work doesn't seem to be slowing Sam down one bit. Sam's a blue-collar Southern boy. He works hard, he doesn't complain, and he always gets his hands dirty. Enjoying a moment to kick back, Sam reclines on the soft couch behind the Greek's massive stage as we begin to talk about Panic's departed co-founder and lead guitarist, Michael Houser. As Mikey's guitar tech, Sam knew Houser in a very unique manner - not only as a guitarist, but as a person. As one may assume, when Mikey died, it had a profound affect on Sam: "If anything, it taught me that this is a precious thing, to be able to do this [play music], and there's no time like now. You don't know how long you're gonna have, so why not? You only live once as far as I can tell."
(L to R) Kayce, Hermann, Holt
Backstage at Greek Theatre by B. Bifulco
Next to Sam sits Widespread Panic's keyboard guru John "JoJo" Hermann. JoJo's double-dipping as well, doing two jobs, and like Sam, he seems to be enjoying his duties. Not only is JoJo pushing the ivories for Panic, but he's also Outformation's producer, and he even plays keys on several tracks. As JoJo tells us, this isn't his first gig as a producer: "I produced my own [record - Just Ain't Right]. I produced Junior Kimbrough and some of that stuff, but with Junior that just kinda meant setting up the mics and getting the bologna sandwiches. That was pretty much it. So this was a little more hands-on, and their arrangements are much bigger. It's a much bigger band." One may be inclined to think that perhaps JoJo is just "throwing Sam a bone," - helping him out because they work on the same team, but nothing could be further from the truth: "I always go for the songs. I listen to the songs first, and that's what turned me onto these guys. And actually, at first I just brought them into the cheap-o studio and was like, 'ah let's just crank out a record,' but then as I got to know the songs more, I really got into it. That's when I decided take it to another level and take it to a real studio [Hum Depot in Nashville, TN with engineer Eli Akins] for the mixing and stuff like that."
Outformation (L to R): Upchurch, Holt, Schwartz
As JoJo elaborates on Outformation's appeal, Sam's guitar playing inevitably shines through; "Sam's got that hypnotic thing. He kinda gets into that trance when he plays, and all my favorite guitar players have that ability to somewhat become hypnotized themselves. Mikey and Junior Kimbrough - there was a hypnotic thing, and I think Sam has that. It's a big part of what drew me to him." The comparisons to Mikey are both appropriate and flattering for Sam. And while Houser's technique was completely original and bit more unorthodox than Sam's approach, there are moments like the slow progression in the instrumental "Center Stage," the burning sound in "Stone In My Shoe," or the ominous fuzzed-out, distant guitar tone at the 1:38 mark in "90" (all tracks on Tennessee Before Daylight) that draw Houser to mind. In all that Sam may have picked up at the foot of Houser's chair, it very well may have been the life lessons more than the guitar ones that have stuck with him. Sam shyly states, "Musically, it was just unspoken. He was aware that I knew what he was doing and that I liked that kinda thing. And personally, it was more. It was more about him believing in me. He told me several times, 'I want you to go play your own music.' For whatever reason, he saw that [music in me], and it just gave me a lot of confidence. And then JoJo, along with that, has just always been behind me." As Sam talks about Mikey, he explains how it came to be that Outformation recorded one of Houser's songs, "Can't Change The Past." "I had seen Barbara Cue play it with him [Mikey], and I had a recording of it. I just fell in love with that song, and then it just seemed like the natural thing to do. Then JoJo added some really cool arrangement things to it, and I was really happy with the way it came out on this record."
Sam Holt - Outformation at Bonnaroo '05
By Eric Adkins
While the Panic influence and the Houser inspiration have clearly put fuel in Sam's tank, this is no homage to Mikey nor a spill-over from Panic. It's songs like "Bout My Money," where Sam finds a deep, funked-out groove with heavy wah-wah inflections and huge areas to improvise (not to mention stellar keyboard work by JoJo), and the songwriting in the title track, or the anthemic disc closer, "Lonely Lonely Road" by drummer Lee Schwartz that show a band with a unique voice and serious potential.
Lee Schwartz - Outformation
Bonnaroo '05 by Eric Adkins
I met Sam about a year ago when I was working the Crew for Stockholm Syndrome's [read the article here] first International Tour, but I knew of him for quite a while. I think the first time his name really rang a bell was when he sat in at Widespread Panic's emotionally-charged show following Houser's death on 8.18.02 at Fiddler's Green in Colorado. News of "that guy who ripped" spread quickly by phone, email, and fansites. Talk of his tone and delivery, emotion, and hints of Houser took on a life of its own. It only goes to follow that when Sam and I shook hands at the airport as we packed up Stockholm Syndrome's gear, I immediately thought of Sam the guitar player, not Sam the guitar tech. But in fact the two are not exclusive of one anther, and actually they go hand-in-hand. Sam's hard work off the stage is matched only by his work on it.