Thursday, March 3, 2011

Widespread Panic Comes Full Circle

Celebrating the Band's 25th Anniversary!

A few months ago, life bounced at the usual pace for Dave Schools. He wasn’t in a particularly celebratory mood. Then it finally dawned on him: Widespread Panic’s silver anniversary had quietly snuck up on him and his bandmates.

“When you’re in a band, you’re continually evolving, making records, getting gigs and considering yourself lucky to be doing it,” says Schools. “And then, inevitably, somebody else reminds you that it’s a watershed moment. It really did sneak up.”

Widespread Panic performs at the Classic Center on Thursday, Feb. 10 and Friday, Feb. 11. The venue is situated on the original spot where the original four members first performed as Widespread Panic 25 years ago. An additional Valentine’s Day show is set at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta as well.

“These anniversaries give you a chance to look back and take stock of how things happened,” Schools says. “When someone reminds me of some statistic like one—that says that in 1990 we did over 250 shows—I think, ‘God, that sounds like a lot of hard work and a lot of miles.’ On one hand, that’s the case, but on the other hand, it’s really nice work if you can get it. And we were getting it. We must have been doing right to be able to play that many shows in a year—and then survive it.”

Schools arrived in Athens in 1983 from Richmond, VA to attend UGA. It didn’t take long for him to find like-minded musicians with whom to jam, perform and party. Guitarists John “JB” Bell and Michael Houser were already working on tunes together when they enlisted Schools in ’84. As a quartet, they began playing at keg parties and small clubs with various drummers before coming up with a band name that stuck.

“Back then, there weren’t many clubs downtown,” says Schools. “But the drinking laws were very different. There used to be huge band parties on campus with beer trucks on hand. On Saturday nights, bars would announce last call at 11:45 p.m., so everyone would scatter to find house parties to go to.”

After playing a series of casual gigs and jam sessions, the band started tightening up and developing a guitar-based, Southern-rock style. Drummer Todd Nance agreed to keep time for the band with their show at the Mad Hatter Ballroom in early 1986. It was a wise move.

“We used to have a Rolodex of drummers,” says Schools. “Sometimes, some of them couldn’t make it, or some of then needed to get paid. The Rolodex ran dry right before that big gig which was a slot opening for John Keane’s [Panic’s longtime studio guru] old psychedelic band, Strawberry Flats. Another band called The Other Soon was also on the bill—and that was Paul Thomas’ band [Thomas is still known in the scene as a visual artist, musician and former owner of celebrated Washington Street hangout and shop the X-Ray Café]. We refer to that as our first show because it was Todd’s first show with us.”

The Mad Hatter Ballroom was a large space in the Lyons Textile building, adjacent to an oyster house called Sparky’s Seafood Café. It served as a music venue and rented-out party room for sororities and fraternities in the early 1980s before closing in 1987. Old-school Athens indie bands such as Pylon, R.E.M. and Love Tractor performed many of their first local concerts at the Mad Hatter.

“Todd really fit in,” says Schools of that first gig with Nance. “He and Mike had already played together around Chattanooga. We played mostly covers—some a bit more esoteric than other bands were doing—plus a few of our own songs. I remember the performance was one of our better ones… I remember walking off of the stage and not being pissed. It was a benefit show, so there wasn’t any money involved. I think we ended the set with the one song that we knew how to end. It was good.”

In the early ’90s, many of the buildings in the old warehouse district off of Thomas Street were torn down to make room for the construction of the Classic Center.

“I didn’t really see too many shows at the Mad Hatter,” Schools admits. “I liked to go to the old 40 Watt Club on Broad Street. I lived in the dorms down by the stadium, so it was really easy to walk up to the 40 Watt. It was the natural place to go. Then the Uptown Lounge opened, and I wound up getting a job as the door guy there.”

Around the time that Schools started checking IDs at the Uptown Lounge entrance, Bell approached proprietor Kyle Pilgrim about setting up weekly Monday-night gigs at the venue. Pilgrim agreed, and Panic kicked off a legendary one-and-a-half-year stint as the house band, which helped build a strong and loyal local following.

In 1987, the band welcomed percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz to the lineup. The next year, they released their first album, Space Wrangler, on the small Atlanta label Landslide Records. A self-titled Capricorn Records debut in 1991 kicked off an 11-year relationship with the Georgia-based label that ended only when the contract ran out. Panic's 2008 studio album, Free Somehow, came out on the band's own label imprint, Widespread Records.

“We’ve always called the shots, and I won’t say that it wasn’t for lack of wishing that we might have landed that enviable pipe dream of a record contract,” says Schools. “But even in the days when labels were snapping up so-called jam bands like Blues Traveler and Phish, they were always trying to tell us, ‘Can you take that middle part out that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the song?’ And we would respond, ‘But we kind of like that middle part where it is.’ It was more like, if we want to be viable, we need to figure out our own model. We’re doing this so we can stop having people who don’t even know about the band make suggestions. I mean, once we established ourselves as an independent thinking group, then we had people who understood the band collaborate with us. We didn’t have to fight Capricorn too much over the music.”

The band teamed up with progressive, artist-focused indie label ATO Records (founded by Dave Matthews) for its latest release, Dirty Side Down, which came out in May of 2010. The record features a beautiful cover of the late Vic Chesnutt's "This Cruel Thing" and the masterful production work of John Keane. In fact, Keane received a Grammy nomination for his engineering work on this record—marking the first Grammy nod for WSP.

Keys man and songwriter John “JoJo” Hermann (formerly of Mississippi band Beanland) officially joined Panic in 1992. The additional keyboard and organ sounds allowed the band to elaborate on their Southern-fried mix of rock, soul and blues styles. Panic’s riff-based rock grooves resembled elements of Allman Brothers, Skynyrd and Little Feat more than the more psychedelic noodlings of California hippie rockers like the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane. Compared to the jangly, more artsy college rock in town, they stood out like fuzzy weirdos.

During the 1990s, a notion developed that certain Athens bands belonged in certain corners of the music scene. Some acts were more Georgia Theatre while others were more 40 Watt. Hipsters versus hippies. Indie rock verses jam rock.

Schools chuckles at that theory. “Athens has always been really experimental,” he says. “I chalk it up to a combination of things. One, Athens is, indeed, Mayberry on acid. Two, there’s a big college there, so there are a lots of people who may not necessarily be struggling to stay in their house. And three, it’s just such a tight-knit musical community that there are always experiments happening. In most towns, bands will try to stomp each other out of existence so that they can get the lion’s share of attention. In Athens, it was always different to me. I started noticing that in other college towns.

Heavy road work and adventurous musical collaborations (onstage and in the studios) strengthened Panic’s confidence in their early years. The group gained a reputation as a solid live band with sophisticated instrumentation and great chemistry. Their success was a gradual, steady and determined process.

“The important thing to get across is that a lot of the models we set we did out of necessity,” says Schools. “It wasn’t like we had this great plan of independent anarchy. People just weren’t that interested in what we had, and they didn’t see any commercial potential—for one reason or another. But we believed in it and we were having fun doing it. At the time, viable meant being able to keep up rent payments on the band house, making sure the electricity stayed turned on so we could rehearse, and putting gas into Mike Houser's gas-guzzling car so we could make it to the gig in Macon.”

After residing in Athens for over 25 years, Schools recently relocated to Northern California. He looks forward to coming back to the Classic City and spending more than just a quick day in his old hometown—not only to perform onstage, but to reconnect with old friends and catch up.

“These two gigs bear some looking at the past,” says Schools. “Usually, that’s not something we concern ourselves with, but in this case it’s probably proper, if not expected.

“Music is supposed to give you a little kick of emotion, whatever it is,” he adds. “I’m starting to feel it now. Then there’s the wonderful fact that the Classic Center is on the footprint of the Mad Hatter. We’ll literally be within yards of where we originally played. I’m getting excited for these gigs. I really miss Athens a lot, so it’ll be a chance to see people, hang and think about how I spent more than half of my life there. I expect to see some familiar faces… with maybe a few wrinkles added.”


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