On August 10, 2002 the world lost a singular talent, when Widespread Panic guitarist Michael Houser succumbed to pancreatic cancer. The news wasn’t a shock as it was when Jerry Garcia passed, since Houser’s condition wasn’t a secret. He had one last Summer Tour with the band and when his health took a turn for the worse, he hopped off tour leaving a July 2, 2002 performance in Iowa as his final show.
There’s no one who played guitar like Mikey. His “tunneling” style of play lived up to his nickname “Panic” which helped give the Georgia rocker’s their name. It took me a while to get a full appreciation for his wild sound and that came, unfortunately for me, less than a year before his passing at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey on November 10, 2001.
The old Convention Hall was the smallest place I had seen the band with a capacity of just over three thousand. I walked in and planted myself right in front of Mikey’s setup. Throughout the night I stood with my jaw agape at the lingering leads he laid down on such songs as “Rebirtha,” “Thought Sausage” and “Travelin’ Light.” Houser would barrel through his solos that weren’t as much about how he varied tempo as they were about how he accented certain notes. I was fully on board the Mikey train at this point, but sadly I would never see Michael Houser perform again.
In addition to his instrumental talents, Mikey was also an incredible songwriter. Most of his contributions to the Widespread Panic canon are still performed today including “Porch Song,” “Airplane,” Ain’t Life Grand” and “Vacation.” For a while following Houser’s death Panic switched up guitarists before finally enlisting Jimmy Herring. While Jimmy’s style is far from Mikey’s, he was able to fit in nicely and was really the only man for the job.
Today marks the 16th anniversary of Michael Houser’s passing and there’s still not a day that goes by when I don’t wish I saw more shows before he died. For a look at just what Mikey brought to the band, watch footage of “Jack” provided by filmmaker Geoff Hanson which focuses solely on Houser’s hands:
Also, read a beautiful note Mikey shared about his condition just weeks before he died:
Dear Widespread Panic community, and dear friends, Mikey here, with some thoughts and facts for you. As some of you know, I have contracted a terminal form of cancer. I want to assure all of you that all that can be done has been done, and I want to thank all of you who have contributed information, medicine, and so on.
As for me, I am at my home in Athens, GA, surrounded by my family, and being well taken care of.
In the words of Lou Gehrig “Though some of you may have thought I have caught a bad break, I feel like the luckiest man in the world.”
Between my best friends, J.B., Todd, Sunny, Dave and JoJo, and you, our friends, and best support group in the world, I feel strong and well taken care of.
I have hopes of playing again soon, although I can’t say for sure when or where, and I hope to see you all there.
With much thanks and love,
We still miss you Mikey!
[Originally Published: August 10, 2016]