Widespread Panic: Running With Ghosts (Relix Revisited)
“I think none of us wanted to believe that he was actually going to go,” says Ortiz. “He knew he was going to, but we were going, like, ‘It won’t happen. Something will come up.’ And it was just like a roller coaster ride those last few months.”
Now it’s a whole other kind of ride. Smoother, more accepting, different. For one thing, McConnell plays nothing like his predecessor. His rock touchstones are players like Steve Cropper, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, with a liberal dose of first-wave punk: New York Dolls, The Clash and The Sex Pistols, and his guitar attack is more aggressive and measured, and less subtle than his predecessor’s playing. And then he doesn’t take as many risks. And that’s something necessary for Panic to sound like well, Panic.
“The one thing that people always get wrong about us is that they think that we’re the Grateful Dead, when we’re really the Led Zeppelin of the jamband world,” explains Nance.
“With Panic it’s all about the song itself, and the jam part just came as a consequence of just having fun playing a good song,” agrees McConnell. “It’s kinda like Led Zeppelin when they play something that they’ve written in the studio, then when it gets live it would become this big monster thing with a drum solo. But then you could just as easily say that they’re really Black Sabbath. As I understand, Mikey was a big Black Sabbath freak, and real into heavy music and stuff.
“Mostly they tell me not to try to be Mikey, but to just be myself. It’s never anything about notes, but more in terms of style. Get heavy, drive this part. Lay back on this part, or we want it to go to a crescendo and then drop off to—bam!—silence. What we’re shooting for in the song. Whether it happens or not, you know doesn’t really matter. “I guess the thing that bothers me, and the thing that I’m first of all most concerned about, is making the guys in the band happy playing music. Because the last thing they want to do is be an oldies review of themselves,” says McConnell.
But to their credit, the Panic members are not living in the past. Nor do they want to. “The only thing that I’m afraid of is where we’ve been and how it mightaffect us in the future,” explains Dave Schools. “I think our fans know thatthere’s sort of a continuing evolutionary trend, and that it would be unhealthy for us to be stuck in some kind of rut, and I think we recognize that to a certain extent, too. But I think my biggest fear was—are they going to forget us while we’re gone? I wasn’t worried about the chemistry of the band because we’ve taken six months off, or whatever, and it’s like riding a bike.
Once we get together, it might be glorious slop, but the feeling is always there between the six of us.” Ortiz agrees. “The whole persona of the stage I think exemplifies how we present ourselves on the stage. I think people can feel that energy. They can “J.B. is not like the rest of us you know,” explains one intimate. “He believes in past lives and magic. And books.”
Commendable in some quarters, but it seems the bigger piece of the puzzle is his commitment to constant transformation, whether it’s never playing the same set twice to ordering the same meal at a favorite restaurant. Hell, he doesn’t even like to stick to the written lyrics in one of the band’s songs.
“The lyrics are always open to amendment,” he admits. “I think it’s about letting the song play you, and I don’t think that should be restricted to just the way we go about it with our instruments. Why not just take off lyrically, too? If there are new images popping in your head or all of a sudden the characters are doing a different dance that day, then that’s kind of fun to just report on,” he explains, his half-moon eyes narrowing in the low light.
“I always think of Widespread Panic as a work in progress. It’s like, about back to any final destination, you’re always this morphing organism, you know? In a state of becoming, but there really never seems like an end destination. I mean, if there’s any intention or goal, that is our goal. It’s not to create this one piece of art and then, okay, there it is. It’s like you just keep creating on that same piece of art, because it never feels finished anyway.”
Part of that urge for restless reinvention meant not hiring longtime producer John Keane to produce their latest album, Earth to America. Instead, the band hired Terry Manning, a Stax production alumnus and engineer for bands such as Jason & The Scorchers, George Thorogood and The Destroyers, Joe Cocker, Joe Walsh, Johnny Winter, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Molly Hatchet.
But despite not having Keane onboard, the album is an honest look at what the band has gone through, as well as a bold declaration that they plan to prevail no matter what. “Goodpeople” is autobiographical, assertive and upbeat, giving fans an unstinting look at where the band is, from the first line: “We are the good people your friends told you about.” And they are. One thing that everyone comments about is this band’s likeability factor. “We all like each other for sure,” says Ortiz. “If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.” “I want to know where all the jerks are,” says Panic’s lighting avatar,
Candace Brightman, who previously worked as the Grateful Dead’s longtime lighting technician. “Everyone is so nice, it makes me sick—there’s no one topick on.” “I’m sure John Keane didn’t take it personally,” posits Bell. “It was just business. And he’s here now.” Indicating that their erstwhile producer is showing up at important shows like May’s concert at Atlanta’s Fox Theater and these two Berkeley gigs.
“I think we were really shits to John Keane,” says Ortiz. “Sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot,” “Not because we want to, but certain situations have arisen. The changing of record companies. I guess that’s how it all starts. And then with the passing of Mikey, it kind of set us back a few years. Because we’re just like small fish in a big ocean, you know? Not just the jamband world, but the whole music genre. The big fish are Radiohead and Pearl Jam. We feel like we’re not anywhere close to where we’re enriching to anyone, except for ourselves. And maybe that’s why people kind of get off to us—because they can feel like there’s no pretense.”
But the important thing is not the remembering, but what’s ahead. To continue to make their art. To never anticipate the end. “Even though times are changing for us, we feel like it’s never going to stop for us. There’s always going to be something on the other side of this. If that battle means that we’re going to be fighting upstream, then we’re going to fight upstream till the bitter end. And a lot of people talk that with Mikey’s passing away, that that was it for us. The battle was over. There’s no more, there’s nothing to live for. And we felt that way for a short while, but like, what are we going to do? This is what we do. And we plan to do it to the bitter end,” says Ortiz. “Or at least until the wine runs out.”
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
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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