Interview | Sunny Ortiz Talks Widespread Panic Colorado History
For Widespread Panic, Colorado is a second home
Hatfield made it rain for LA. Widespread Panic made it snow in Colorado.
The first time the Athens, Georgia band rolled into Colorado, Telluride was their destination. The day was March 6, 1990 and the tiny mountain hamlet hadn’t seen hardly any snow the entire ski season.
When Widespread Panic’s tour van pulled into town, the skies opened with bountiful matter from the heavens above.
[Photo by Andy Tenille]
“The first gig we played at the Fly Me To The Moon Saloon in 1990 there was a huge blizzard that came in right as we got there,” said Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, percussionist for Widespread Panic. “People were just crazy because it hadn’t snowed and everyone was so excited. It was a great gig. I remember the Fly Me To The Moon Saloon floor moves up and down. It was wild.”
That first Telluride show was a harbinger of things to come for Widespread Panic in Colorado. This weekend the band makes it’s annual pilgrimage to Red Rocks Amphitheater where they have sold-out more shows (42) than any other band.
Widespread Panic then returns to Colorado July 11 and 12 as headliners of the Ride Festival in Telluride. I spoke to Sunny about the Centennial State and its special place in the band’s collective hearts.
Geoff Hanson: There’s a love affair happening between Widespread Panic and Colorado. Tell me about it.
Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz: Colorado is a second home for us. It’s really the first place we gathered traction outside of the South. In the early years, the only form of distribution we had was through people passing tapes amongst each other.
Colorado was a huge stepping stone for us because a lot of the folks who we played for at UGA and other southern schools, once they graduated a lot of them migrated to the Colorado area for obvious reasons – great weather, the skiing, you’re so close to the West Coast. So when we got there the first time people knew who we were thanks to the folks from the South who had shared the music with their friends.
So we started working there and fortunately kept coming back. It was a huge thing for our careers and it still is. We feel fortunate we have the support of the Coloradoans. We’ve logged a lot of miles through that state.
GH: What do you remember about Bill Graham’s Mid Summer Music Festival in Telluride in 1991? That felt like a big step for the band.
DO: The Mid Summer Music Festival was awesome. Having Bill Graham hold our CD and introduce us was huge for the band. We were honored that we were invited to do that show. He asked us to come out and do an encore. That was very meaningful. Bill Graham was in our corner. He believed in us, he saw something in our band. It was a big validation for our band. He’s a hero of all of ours.
GH: You played two shows at the Sheridan Opera House during the festival and it was there that you first played with Warren Haynes, a collaboration that lasts to this day.
DO: That’s sure worked out well for us! Warren is a dear friend and we look forward to getting together with him in Telluride later this summer.
GH: Do you remember the 1992 show at the Gerald Ford Amphitheater?
DO: That was wild. They opened the gates and people just swarmed this outdoor theater, people were sprinting down, coming from all over the place. It was so packed it was like being in the middle of an earthquake. We could really feel the momentum building in Colorado at that point.
GH: Your first gig at Red Rocks was H.O.R.D.E. in 1993. What was that like?
DO: H.O.R.D.E. was a stepping stone to starting a relationship with Bill Bass, which is what led to us getting our first Red Rocks shows years later. I remember with H.O.R.D.E. our equipment truck broke down and we had to use rental gear and other people’s gear to play that show.
GH: Sit and Ski in 1996 has got to stand out as one of the band’s most memorable tours.
DO: The Sit and Ski tour was Mikey’s brainchild. He was a skier and he thought it would be a good idea to hit all the major ski resorts and do it semi-acoustic. I have great memories from Sit and Ski. It wasn’t just Colorado. We also hit Utah and Wyoming. It was quite a feat. We were out there for over a month. Our biggest problem was getting from gig to gig but we never missed a show.
GH: Let’s talk Red Rocks. 1996 was your first headlining show there. You have 42 consecutive sell-outs. How does that feel?
DO: It’s a huge honor. We wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of the fans and the promoter to keep inviting us back. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful place to play, definitely one of the nicest in the country.
GH: You’ll be returning to Telluride in July for your first shows since 2003. Anyone who was there will never forget it. What do you remember?
DO: I remember it was a beautiful day and as we were taking the stage the clouds rolled in. It was a scary sight. The sky opened up about three songs into the show. I remember we were backstage and people were saying, “Why don’t you wait it out?” We were ankle deep in mud. They had to tow the bus out. Next day we played a five-hour show. We gave them what the rain stopped and the second’ night’s material too.
We have friends in Colorado who are like, “You guys could do a month here.” Well, it’s nice to think of it that way. But how do we keep it enjoyable for the fans? That’s our biggest thing. We want it to be a fan-friendly environment when they come to the shows. It’s all about the fans. And we know our fans will enjoy Telluride and seeing us in that beautiful place. Telluride is one of our favorite places to play. We’re excited to be coming back.
GH: One of your favorite bands when you were young was The Beatles. You’re creeping up on 64. When you heard the song “When I’m Sixty-Four” did you ever imagine you’d still be rocking out?
DO: Yeah I did. I first heard The Beatles “I Saw Her Standing There” I was all of fifth grade. I was the president of The Beatles Fan Club in Waco, Texas.
When I first heard “When I’m Sixty-Four” I thought, sure, I can see myself playing until I’m 75. You have to remember the boys are 10 years my junior. Maybe they’ll want to stop when they’re 60. I don’t know. I can’t say. I can play until whenever.
The Rolling Stones, they’re still rocking at 70. The Dead guys are still doing it. They’re raking it in. They’re going to satisfy the music until they can’t do it anymore. I think it’s great.
GH: One of Mikey’s most beloved songs is “Ain’t Life Grand.” In addition to Mikey, you’ve lost a lot of folks dear to the band – Wayne Sawyer, Garrie Vereen, Yogi Bosemer (long time crew members), Vic Chesnutt. You’ve experienced a lot of tragedy. What does the phrase “ain’t life grand” mean to you now?
DO: I think it means you take what life gives you. Nothing is perfect and certainly none of us are perfect. So you cherish every moment you have with your family, your friends, and you cherish every moment you’re up on stage, every moment you’re in the airport, on the bus, in the hotel room. That’s our life.
That’s how we exist until there’s no more. That’s not our call. That’s the Supreme Being, whoever that is, dealing out the cards they deal. And we just make every moment count for us. That’s what makes life grand. You take every moment that you have on this earth and you make it the best you can without stepping on anyone’s toes and recognize how important everyone’s life is: what they go through, whatever strife and struggles other people may have.
I’m living my dream I dreamed in the late ’60s about being in a rock ‘n’ roll band and that’s what I tell my students -follow your dreams. Do something that’s going to make you happy, something you’re 110 percent committed to. Otherwise you’re wasting your time and other people’s time.
I say to my son, “I’m going to tell you something my dad always told me – ‘Have fun at what you do and do it the best you can.’” Make sure people know what you have is the best thing on earth and that what they have is even better. The thing is, while you’re here on earth you have to respect and give love to those around you.
Geoff Hanson produced the 2001 RIAA Gold Certified DVD Widespread Panic: Live at Oak Mountain and the 2002 tour documentary The Earth Will Swallow You.