Widespread Panic founding lead guitarist and namesake Michael Houser was born on this date in 1962. The musician, who would’ve turned 59 today, tragically died at age 40 in 2002 due to pancreatic cancer.
Mikey’s nickname of “Panic” help inspired the band to go by the Widespread Panic moniker in 1986. The guitarist had a tone unlike any other and his lingering leads were at the forefront of the group’s sound. Houser’s 16-year tenure in Widespread Panic saw the band grow from local favorites in their hometown of Athens, Georgia to an act able to fill large venues across the country. The Boone, North Carolina native also contributed to seven Widespread Panic studio albums, including Ain’t Life Grand in 1994.
Ain’t Life Grand focused mainly on originals the band had road tested ahead of entering the studio with producer John Keane. The LP, Widespread Panic’s fourth, contained 11 songs as well as hidden track “Waiting For The Wind To Blow Down The Tree In My Back Yard.” All of the tunes from Ain’t Life Grand remain staples of the band’s live repertoire with the exceptions of “Raise The Roof,” “L.A.” and “Waiting For The Wind To Blow Down The Tree In My Back Yard.”
Ain’t Life Grand opening track “Little Kin” ws debuted on April 24, 1993 at Benchwarmers in Lawrence, Kansas. The song has been played regularly by Panic ever since with the exception of a 90-show span between November 17, 2001 and June 28, 2003. WSP fit “Little Kin” within the back half of their second set on April 6, 1997 at Hayden Square in Tempe, Arizona.
The title track of the album was first played during a radio appearance for Charlottesville’s WWWV on July 26, 1993 by Houser, John Bell, Todd Nance and Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz. “Ain’t Life Grand” initially received the full band treatment a few nights later in Albany, New York on July 29, 1993. Bell often plays mandolin on a song that is among the most played Panic tune of the past 27 years. The version featured above comes from the band’s hometown Panic In The Streets performance on April 18, 1998.
“Airplane” was debuted by Widespread Panic on March 2, 1994 at Saratoga Winners in Cohoes, New York and was a showcase for Houser’s singing and lead guitar stylings. WSP shelved “Airplane” following Mikey’s death for four years. The song returned to repertoire on October 30, 2006 and has been a staple ever since. Houser shines on the rendition above from Panic’s second set on July 2, 1997 at Peoria’s Madison Theater.
Bloodkin’s Daniel Hutchens and Eric Carter wrote “Can’t Get High,” one of two covers featured on Ain’t Life Grand. Widespread Panic unveiled their rendition during a H.O.R.D.E. Festival stop at Trout Aire in Forest Lake, Minnesota on July 9, 1993. “Can’t Get High” frequently made Panic setlists through 1998 at which point it became more of a rarity until returning to regular action in 2003. Check out the sextet’s performance of “Can’t Get High” from the first set of their New Year’s Eve 1993 concert at Athens’ Georgia Theatre above.
While Panic premiered “Heroes” on August 4, 1993 in Pittsburgh, the band would wait 44 shows before performing the song a second time. The band stopped playing “Heroes” in the wake of Mikey’s death. However, Widespread Panic busted the tune out on July 7, 2006 after a 289-show hiatus and only once have gone more than 20 gigs without performing “Heroes” since. See WSP’s acoustic version of “Heroes” from the first set of their Sit & Ski Tour stop in Colorado Springs, Colorado on January 31, 1996.
“Raise The Roof” is the lone song off Ain’t Life Grand that has disappeared from Widespread Panic’s live repertoire. Debuted on January 27, 1994, the haunting tune was played 24 times through June 22, 1996. Then, “Raise The Roof” saw infrequent action as the band often went at least 30 shows between performances before what still stands as the final live version on June 22, 2001. Watch WSP “Raise The Roof” on April 18, 1995 in Blacksburg, Virginia above.
Widespread Panic arranged Junior Kimbrough’s “Junior” for inclusion on Ain’t Life Grand. The band premiered their version live on April 9, 1993 in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. A whopping 432 takes on “Junior” have followed over the years including the rendition from July 19, 1998 in Charlotte viewable above.
The instrumental “L.A,” aka “Eliza’s Apartment,” is the oldest song featured on Ain’t Life Grand. Widespread Panic’s first documented “L.A.” was performed on July 15, 1987 at New Deli in Greenville, North Carolina. “L.A.” remained a staple throughout the 1980s and then the band would often go a hundred shows or more between performances. Panic has only played “L.A.” twice since 2012. The version featured here comes from WSP’s March 12, 1988 concert at Pita Potpourri in Atlanta.
Keyboardist Jojo Hermann stars on “Blackout Blues,” an Ain’t Life Grand track first played live by Panic on November 17, 1993 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Blackout Blues” has been in heavy rotation since its debut with 523 total performances through 2020. See Jojo lead the band on the tune during their Sit N Ski Tour performance at Denver’s Ogden Theater on February 9, 1996.
The ballad “Jack” also dates back to Widespread Panic’s formative years. Ain’t Life Grand’s penultimate track was premiered on August 4, 1988 at Athens’ Uptown Lounge. Bell’s heartfelt vocals and Mikey’s emotional guitar work are at the heart of a tune that never left the band’s live repertoire. Houser’s penultimate show took place at Red Rocks on June 30, 2002. Watch the powerful “Jack” from Mikey’s Red Rocks finale above.
On March 8, 1990, Widespread Panic unveiled “Fishwater,” a percussion-heavy song that would quickly become a fan favorite. “Fishwater” is another “classic” Panic recorded for Ain’t Life Grand. The tune often appears in the band’s second set and has been used to showcase special guests on many occasions. A total of 819 versions of “Fishwater” have been played by WSP over the past 30 years including the take from July 2, 1999 at the High Sierra Music Festival featured above.