Widespread Panic: Running With Ghosts (Relix Revisited)
As Widespread Panic prepares to kicks off its 25th Anniversary next month, today we revisit a challenging moment in the band’s history, as this article from September 2006 looks at the period following the loss of co-founder Mike Houser
Widespread Panic isn’t the first band to have lost a founding member in its prime—Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones drowned in his swimming pool in 1969, bassist Cliff Burton perished in a bus accident while Metallica were on tour in Sweden in 1987, Who drummer Keith Moon choked on his own vomit and three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd died in the second most famous plane crash in rock history. Rock ‘n’ roll is a hazardous business, and while some outfits are able to reconfigure their aesthetic, their outlook and their very sound, others aren’t.
While a whole new future beckons, to a man, Widespread Panic is still haunted by their friend. So haunted that his presence loomed large no matter what we talked about: whether it was the band’s tour, new album, or guitarist George McConnell, everything seemed measured against the spirit of Michael Houser. It’s very likely the reason McConnell’s four-year tenure with the band came to a close was because his straight ahead, R&B-infused rock was so radically different from Houser’s Byzantine noodling. Perhaps their rather obsessive need to talk about their fallen brother was a mass purging, in order to fully move forward, or a recognition that it isn’t easy to leave behind a piece of yourself, especially when it’s been a part of you for over 20 years, in the case of founding members John Bell and Dave Schools. Then again, some people never get over the loss. More than 30 years after the death of his brother, Gregg Allman is still lamenting Duane: “That’s something you just never get used to.” Lynyrd Skynrd still take Ronnie Van Zant’s flat black hat with them from show to show, and before Van Zant’s brother, Johnny, began singing the words to “Freebird,” they would only do it as an instrumental with Ronnie’s hat perched atop the mic stand. But to its great credit, the band has been able to prove that even without the help of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, they were able to put Widespread Panic back together again, but with one caveat. While it sounds much the same as the old Panic, it’s an entirely different beast. Less unruly, a little more assured and without the raging unpredictability that was at its core. When Houser was alive, you could expect anything at all— it was like hearing whales sing on a good night. Disconcerting, but always utterly surprising.
But nothing so surprising as a mere four days after turning in this story and finding out that George McConnell had suddenly left the band following Panic’s July 30 show at The Fox Theatre in St. Louis. It gives some of McConnell’s statements a rather prescient spin, especially what he says about Jimmy Herring, since Herring has been tapped as the new guitarist beginning this fall. With the old saw about the clarity of hindsight it is now easy to see some of the things I thought of as just inner-band tensions as indicators of something deeper— that McConnell’s crack-playing would always be dwarfed by the specter of a ghost—he just didn’t play like Mikey. “You know, it’s a continuing process, and really I think he got the gig more just because he’s someone that we felt good about,” explained Dave Schools when we spoke several weeks ago for this piece prior to McConnell’s departure. “I gave him some advice that I picked up when I took over for Allen Woody, after he died, with Gov’t Mule. I just said there’s three ways to look at the material you’re trying to learn. And one is, there are certain things that are signature licks that need to be basically copied exactly. And then there’s a larger slice of the material where you pay respect to the idea and the intent of what he played, but there’s a little wiggle room for you to inject yourself. And then the other part is, and hopefully it grows, is where you step in and apply your own values to something. And it’s small at first—but you try to. Hopefully you fit in and you write new material, and that becomes the thing. But that first part is the hard one to get, sort of drawing that line of distinction. Because that’s really, it’s for the fans. And if you knew the person well— like Alan and I were dangerous running partners and I got out before he did, and the rest is history—it’s easier. For me, finding those signature parts was really easy because I knew him, and there’s no wiggle room there.” But apparently after four years with Panic, there was less wiggle room than even George McConnell thought. Even his wife seemed to sense that. “It’ll last as long as it lasts,” she explained sanguinely at the Berkeley show. What is key is that it couldn’t have been as amicable an ending as the band press release would lead us to believe given that the guitarist left nine days from the end of the summer swing, returning to his Oxford, Mississippi home. “My old man always warns me all the time, he’s says: ‘Don’t let the McConnell in you come out,’” said the guitarist at the close of our interview at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, explaining how he is inclined to react when backed into a corner. In this case he was talking about some “semifamous guitar players telling me they deserve the job [in Panic] instead of me.”
“You mean your temper flares?” I asked.
“Yeah, just telling someone, ‘Fuck you, I’ll show you.’ It’s part of the McConnell in me, as my old man says.”
I suspect that was what allowed him to leave the tour in a huff. And also the part that caused him not to return our calls, despite our myriad attempts to allow for his side of the story given that we’ve included an addendum with John Bell’s comments on the situation. We literally stopped the presses to accommodate the rapidly changing universe of Widespread Panic. But adding insult to injury is being replaced by the man who seemed to be dogging his heels, and someone that he names out in his interview, as you’ll read in the later parts of this piece. But what could be more rock ‘n’ roll than a conflagration like this?
What you’ll read next is the story that came out of interviews with the band three weeks prior to McConnell’s departure and two days before we were to go to press…
You can never underestimate the power of a name. Did Michael Houser know when he dubbed this second-wave, thinking man’s jamband after his own nickname for anxiety attacks that he would put his compatriots into their own panic 16 years later? Doctors will tell you that most sufferers report a fear of dying, going crazy or losing control of emotions and behavior, but while one in 60 people suffer such attacks, not all of them expire at an early age. Some do. But compounded with his reluctance to see a doctor, well, it just seems that it had to indicate something. “I never go to doctors,” Houser told a reporter in 2000. “I just don’t want to hear what they’re going to tell me.”
“That’s just a guy thing,” says percussionist Sunny Ortiz a little too quickly and just this side of dismissively, following the band’s rather truncated soundcheck at Berkeley’s Greek Theater, a perfect half-circle carved into the side of the East Bay Hills overlooking the hazy azure of San Francisco Bay. While an idyllic spot, this jewel-like venue is only a mile from the San Andreas Fault, a scar in the earth’s crust that threatens to erupt with a daunting regularity. One night before a full moon on this too warm July evening, the night seems filled with portent and rough magic. But that’s just the way Widespread Panic likes it. The band’s only guiding rule is “expect the unexpected.”
Ortiz pauses a moment as if deciding whether to go on about his fallen bandmate or not, adjusting his expression, so not to give anything away—subtly shape-shifting from the genial Sunny—who earned his nickname back in high school for the perpetual smile on his face, the result of copious LSD use—to a more complicated man, whose eyes become hard black stones if he’s being asked to subvert the band’s carefully tended group-think, which currently is that they’re back on course and the past is, well, the past.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
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Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
Ron Sexsmith visits the Relix office to perform a tune from his latest record Forever Endeavor.
Crystal Bowersox stops by Relix to perform a song from her new album, All That For This.
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