Standing in front of the Peabody Hotel 10 years ago, Widespread Panic guitarist and vocalist Michael Houser phoned his parents and told them that he just found out he was going to be a father for the first time. He was in town to perform in a Panic show at the now defunct Antenna club. Several months later he had his first son, Waker, and in May of this year his first daughter Eva was born. “That’s probably my biggest Memphis connection, finding out here that I was going to be father for the first time. We (the band) all love the Memphis shows. We love coming here,” Houser says in an afternoon telephone interview from Louisville, Kentucky, where the band was preparing to give a show at the Louisville Palace. “The music history of Memphis is important to everybody,” says Houser. Widespread Panic plays in Memphis to a sold-out house, along with the North Mississippi All-stars, Friday and Saturday, November 24th and 25th for their first Mid-South Coliseum concerts. Houser says he regrets that the weather is too inhospitable to play at the Mud Island Amphitheater, one of his favorite venues, which is becoming too cramped for their ever increasing roll of fans. The Athens, Georgia-based band plays a unique Southern influenced brand of rock-and-roll, which is also rooted in blues, country, and jazz at times. It is impossible to put a label on their style of play. Some group them together with groove bands such as the Grateful Dead and Phish. The in-your-face guitar rifts from Houser and John “J.B.” Bell (guitar), coupled with the speed-demon keyboard work of John “Jo Jo” Herman, and the driving bass of Dave Schools, all laying on top of a thumping bed of percussion laid down by Domingo “Sonny” Ortiz (congas and varied percussion) and the tireless drum work of Todd Nance is enough send the crowd rolling into the aisles. “You can’t really compare us to Phish. I think they are just totally a different style of music,” explains Houser. Although he is right that the musical styles between Phish and Panic are different, it is the eagerness of both bands to stray from the music sheets and explore new territory that links them in some minds. When asked if the demise of Phish might bring the Panic a bigger following, Houser responds, “Well, it’s just like when Jerry [Garcia] died. I don’t think people wake up one morning and say, ‘Hey, well I really liked the Dead, but now I am going to start following the Panic because the Grateful Dead aren’t playing anymore.’ I don’t expect to wake up in a different world tomorrow because Phish isn’t playing anymore.” Pollstar rated Widespread Panic 51st in the magazine’s top 100 touring bands of 1999. That came without MTV hype or consistent top-40 radio play. “We live off of word of mouth,” says Houser, whose band’s open taping policy sends digital copies of their concerts streaming over the Internet. “I really don’t have any problem with sites like Napster who give out discs for free. I can see how a band like Metallica, who relies mostly on record sales to make a living, might have a problem with it, but our fans are going to buy our C.D.’s anyway, even if they have all the live shows, or if they were available off the Internet for free.” Houser says that the band sells about 100,000 to 200,000 copies of each disc -- low levels by industry standards. However, what they lack in C.D. revenue is more than made up for during their tireless 100-plus shows yearly. They set a one-day New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival record in 1999, attracting 63,000 concertgoers to their show. Their 1998 Athens, Georgia Light Fuse and Get Away CD release party set the outdoor concert record with over 100,000 people in attendance. Houser, heavily influenced by the guitar rock of the Seventies, recently had one of his dreams fulfilled when they when they were joined on stage by Robbie Krieger of the Doors for renditions of Light My Fire and Stop Breakin’ Down, in Los Angeles last November. When asked what music he is listening to these days, Houser laughs, “I listen mostly to my kids! I don’t really listen to much rock these days . . . I listen to a lot of ethnic music and classical. I usually just tune it to N.P.R. (National Public Radio) and listen to whatever they throw at me.” He explains that most of the band is married and several of them have kids now. “It’s always hard to leave my family, but it’s what we do,” he continues. “And we have kind of grown up on the road. It’s what we love.” His wife and children join him for some of the more interesting venues, including their European tour last year. Panic will spend this Thanksgiving on the road in Nashville while Houser’s wife and children will be having dinner with her parents at his home in Athens. “We [the band and crew] will all have a Thanksgiving dinner together in Nashville while getting ready for the Memphis shows. We always have big Thanksgiving dinners together since we are always on the road.” Widespread played a Memphis show at the Orpheum in 1994 during the night of the infamous ice storm. “We thought briefly about canceling the show, because we just didn’t think anybody would be able to make it, but our manger insisted we go on . . . and we got ready to play, and a lot of people had made it through the ice, which was pretty fearsome that night. That was a good night,” Houser says. “Memphis was one of the earliest cities where we could go and expect a crowd, having a good time. We had some good times at the Antenna Club, that’s where I told the rest of the band that I was going to have my first child.” The Panic comes to Memphis on this tour with a new soundman who had not even heard about the Panic a month ago. They completely replaced their sound and light crew recently, reacting to feedback from the fans. “That was our whole motivation for changing. We were getting a lot of comments about the sound. People were writing and calling saying ‘I can’t hear this.’” Houser says that the recent feedback from fans indicate that the sound problems have been cleared up. The staff at the Widespread Panic office, the Black Cat crew, peruse the multiple Internet chatrooms and message boards dedicate to the Panic, reading the fans’ comments and relaying them to the band. Widespread Panic started a new recording project which they will focus on beginning in January at John Keane’s studio in Athens. They have some songs already recorded, “but you never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes you end up with something totally different than what you started with.” Houser says the production of the new album shouldn’t delay their Spring 2001 tour. The album is a collaborative work with the songs written by all of the band members. “We usually end up with too many songs,” Houser says. “We usually have more songs than the discs allow.” Panic Producer John Keane’s input is crucial at this stage of the creative process. Another Joyous Occasion, Panic’s latest release, came out earlier this year and featured live cuts of the band joined by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans. “Come with your party hat on,” he says. “Each Memphis show has been special to us in different ways,” explains Houser. They have certainly been special to the Panic crowd lucky enough to see them in Memphis. One thing for certain, when the Coliseum lights go down Friday night and the Panic sound rolls out, we are all in for another joyous occasion.


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