In Appreciation of Michael Houser 1962-2002
On the 10 year anniversary of Widespread Panic guitarist Michael Houser’s death, we present John Swenson’s appreciation which originally ran in the magazine.
No one can truly know how they appear to others, but Michael Houser never had to second-guess him-self on that question. If Widespread Panic, the group named after his college nickname (“Panic”, was a musical manifestation of utopian idealism, Houser was its pied piper, the source of the “lingering lead” central to the band’s motto). Like Jerry Garcia, Houser’s innately kind nature seemed like an extension of his approach to guitar playing; warm and expansive, vibrant but never angry, restless, even hungry for creative play, sensing his audience’s needs in an almost telepathic way.
Michael Houser was the kind of person whose music did the talking for him. You might have called him shy, yet he was always quick to pick up on someone feeling uncomfortable in the room around him and somehow put that person at ease. Through his guitar he managed to extend that talent to arenas full of people. He was first and always a beautiful human being whose heart shone through his demeanor and illuminated his music.
The freshness and energy of the first album, Space Wrangler, is still a revelation today. How many times have I played this album over the years, used it to lift my spirits after a hard day, or introduced a friend to its wonders? When Michael died I played the live records, feeling the pressure of his notes fly, but when I sat down to write this piece I went back to the beginning. As I was listening to the album I opened the sleeve and on the inside gatefold noticed a detail that had completely escaped me until now. There, centered on the fold-out page, is a slightly out-of-focus picture of the band, all standing in the darkness behind Houser, whose image leaps off the page in his white t-shirt. It’s a shocking if inadvertent image of Houser as an angel, someone on a different plane of light from the rest of us, and it’s been there all the time.
There he is, smiling and holding a flower, engulfed in a field of flowers, in the centerfold photo of the Widespread Panic album booklet. Houser’s stirring riff opens the Van Morrison classic “Send Your Mind” and sets the tone for the brilliant Widespread Panic, an album so good it’s still hard for me to imagine in retrospect, as I did when it first came out in 1991, why this group didn’t immediately become bigger than Nirvana. The second track, “Walkin’,” also opens with an irresistible guitar figure that ends up being the root of an impossible-to-forget song. I remember playing this over and over when it came out and marveling that people could still write rock and roll songs of this quality. Houser’s playing is an inspiration on this masterpiece of a record, which also produced the wonderful “Pigeons,” the eerily beautiful “Mercy” with Houser’s spooky outro solo, and the equally beautiful “I’m Not Alone.” What a sequence of songs! “Makes Sense to Me,” the intensity of the “Love Tractor” solo, the way his guitar plays off the horns in “Weight of the World,” the spongy lead at the end of “Barstools and Dreamers.”
When I first saw the group at New York’s Wetlands, they drew a small but already dedicated following. Over the ensuing decade, despite being on a label that was fighting a losing battle in the record industry, receiving virtually no airplay and being dismissed by industry bible_Rolling Stone_, the band built itself up by word of mouth the point where it could headline the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, breaking the existing attendance record for the event. I asked to review that show for Rolling Stone and was told there were “more important” bands to cover (turned out to be the Backstreet Boys). As the main solo voice in the ensemble Houser was essential to the group’s appeal, yet he never played off the rock star trappings. This was not an MTV band.
As great a soloist as Houser was, he always worked inside the group’s dynamic, seldom a lone voice in the spotlight but most often the lead vector of the amazing full-band crescendo WSP achieved on such rave-ups as “Fishwater.” Houser’s style was personal, defying easy comparisons. The way he phrased layers of even-toned notes in his solos reminded me of Indian classical music, lengthy ragas which married composition with improvisation. I suggested he listen to Mike Bloomfield and made a cassette tape copy of an old Butterfield Blues Band record, East-West.” Houser and John Bell invited me on the bus backstage at Stowe, Vermont and popped the tape in the player. We all had a good laugh at the audible scratches on the tape. A month later Michael returned the favor, sending me a tape of a WSP performance from Mud Island in Memphis that he described as “not being too embarrassing.” It was great.
At the beginning of this year I went to Athens to interview the band for a Relix cover story. I don’t think anyone knew at the time that Michael was ill. The band was in high spirits anticipating a big year and Michael laughed in his quiet way as he shared recollections of the band’s early days. There was a feeling in the air that WSP had achieved the most difficult goal popular musicians can aspire to—becoming successful by simply being themselves. None of them projected their happiness over that achievement more than Michael—he seemed to relish remembering how difficult it was for them in the beginning. Sitting in that basement clubhouse at Brown Cat, he looked like a man living every moment of his life to its fullest potential.
I can think of no more fitting epitaph for anyone.
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