Wilmington owns an abundant history that’s only further embellished by tradition. One tradition that holds true is that of the Azalea Festival, which began in 1948, and hosts a slew of events, including two major concerts a year. Taking the stage during this year’s festivities will be one of the most dominant jam bands of the past two decades, Widespread Panic (WSP).
Twenty-eight years young with dozens of festivals and albums under their belt, WSP has established an identity with their Southern style, hospitality and substantial fan base. Needless to say, the band breathes tradition. Living through multiple wars, the birth of the Internet, and the explosion of social media, WSP has seen it all. Keeping up with the evolution of society, they attempt to remain grounded in their own fresh musicality.
The modern lineup consists of founding member John Bell (rhythm guitar/lead singer), Jimmy Herring (lead guitar), JoJo Hermann (keyboard), Dave Schools (bassist), Todd Nance (drums), and Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz (percussion). Though not forgotten, WSP’s previous lead guitarist, Michael Houser, passed away in 2002. Houser was a founding member with Bell during their time spent in Athens, GA. Dubbed “Panic” by his bandmates, due to the number of panic attacks he had, Houser lent the band his namesake.
They’ve gone on tour to garner fans worldwide since 1981 when the founding members met at the University of Georgia. Through numerous lineup changes, they’ve managed to release dozens and dozens of albums, which scored them two Jammies for Live Album of the Year in 2002 and Live Album of the Year in 2006. They even encourage “tapers” to capture their live shows—to tape, trade, and freely distribute concerts, helping spread the Panic love far and wide.
With modern technology, WSP started “The Couch Tour” in 2013, an ongoing event which streams audio from each show on Panicstream.com. A fitting tour name, fans can get involved conceivably from their couch. “I’d rather the people hear it than put up barriers to people hearing it,” Hermann proclaims. “It’s worked out for us just great, we’re very lucky.”
In true jam-band fashion, WSP finds notoriety in that they never play the same show twice. The band has its own show-to-show ritual of choosing the evening’s set list. At the beginning of each tour, someone from the road crew makes a master list of all WSP’s songs and laminates it. This is where a multi-colored marker system comes into play. The crew member uses black to mark through a song they played, say, the night before. Then goes on to use red, green, purple, and so forth, as to make sure songs get paired differently each night. “It’s a system that has worked with us for a long time,” Hermann says.
Although WSP’s song lengths and preludes vary live, specific jams can be recognized within the first few seconds. “Chilly Water,” off of 1988’s “Space Wrangler,” is a prime example. It sports a legendary lead-in bass line that ignites the crowd after hearing the first lick. “Tall Boy,” released with the 1997 record, “Bombs and Butterflies,” salvages yet another unforgettable introduction. The friendly tune—reflecting a time when the tour bus broke down—opens with an eclectic keyboard riff that rears its head throughout, a dynamic approach indicative to WSP’s songwriting.
Bell’s voice plays a big role in the group’s melodic nature. His cavernous tone and raspy Southern twang highlights the utter musicianship of the rest of the band. Even without Houser, WSP still finds ways to take their funky rhythms to new heights. Herring doesn’t rely solely on imitating the band’s earlier works either. Being an accomplished guitarist outside of WSP, his style gives a nod to their roots and history while also making the music his own. In fact, all the members of WSP have side projects. Dave Schools, for instance, has toured as part of Stockholm Syndrome, while Todd Nance has recorded and toured as part of Barbara Cue.
Still, the band as whole keeps its shows fresh, fun, and unforgettable. A typical concert relies on different covers, like The Doors’ “Peace Frog/Blue Sunday” or Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me.” Of course, they always play their hits, and add fantastic light shows.
WSP has been working on new songs on the West Coast, which take shape live onstage. Their jam sessions play out like a conversation and connect the members of the band with the audience. “You listen to everybody [onstage] and how [each member] affects you,” Hermann iterates. “We hear what [one another has] to say and give our own input.”
While music is at the heart of the band, philanthropic give-back makes up part of their soul. WSP consistently has been involved with charitable events and have played shows that help communities nationally and globally. For instance, the band supports “Tunes For Tots,” an annual event in Atlanta. The show raises money to provide instruments for the music programs of the area’s public schools. “That one’s my favorite,” Hermann admits, “I love it.”
Like the rest of the band, Hermann participates in his own individual events, too. “Down By The Bayou” takes place in New Orleans after Jazz Fest. “We get together and raise money for the NO Musician’s Clinic,” he explains. “It’s always good to get out there and do what you can.”
In conjunction with WSP’s two-day concert during Azalea Festival, and just two blocks from the Miller Light Main Stage downtown Wilmington, local watering hole Goat & Compass will be hosting a food-and-drink drive for Nourish NC before both shows at 2 p.m. The New Hanover County nonprofit implements community programs to fight hunger, feed children, and encourage healthy eating. The WSP kick-off party will have Natty Greenes pouring on site, a pig pickin’ courtesy of Duke’s Old South BBQ, and live music from No Dollar Shoes, Groove Fetish, and more.
Wilmington’s Good Shepherd Center is also taking advantage of the goodwill that WSP draws. Staff and volunteers will be accepting food donations for their soup kitchen outside of the main stage on both Friday and Saturday. Concert-goers will receive a festival chair, courtesy of the NC Azalea Festival and Miller Lite, for a minimum donation of just two non-perishable food items—these will be the only chairs permitted at the concert which is all general admission.
“Widespread Panic supports organizations committed to feeding the hungry and feel it is important to do something special for the Wilmington community,” Matt DeCamp, the band’s representative, says. “We know Good Shepherd has been feeding the hungry in this community for more than 30 years, and we are honored to partner with them.”
Although WSP has played everywhere, they haven’t managed to play Wilmington’s Azalea Festival. Their concert promises to bring a culture and style as deep as the Cape Fear River to this year’s festivities.
Miller Lite Main Stage
N. Front St., between Hanover and Brunswick streets
April 11th and April 12th, 8 p.m.