Spread the word: Panic reaching to outer limits
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From CNN Interactive Writer Jamie Allen
ATLANTA (CNN) -- When your band has been playing gigs since the 1980s, and you've released six albums along with a collaborative effort with another artist, and you're at the end of your touring schedule for the year, it's hard to get overly excited about your accomplishments.
So the six members of Widespread Panic will have to be excused if they seem to be taking their success -- which has been building like a freight train going uphill -- in slow-and-easy stride.
"It seems like (our fan base) almost doubles every year," says a nonchalant Mike Houser, guitarist for Widespread.
The Athens, Georgia band ended 1998 by playing four sold-out shows at Atlanta's historic Fox Theater, capping a surprising year that started in their hometown with a free concert to mark the release of their live CD, "Light Fuse Get Away." That April event flooded Athens streets with tens of thousands of peace-loving and grooving fans who danced for nearly three hours to the band's blissed-out jams, which are often compared to Grateful Dead and that other modern Dead band, Phish.
The band then performed eight months of headline touring from coast to coast, and made its first foray into the international market. Meantime, the year-ending gigs at the Fox were equally joyous -- a peaceful collection of 'Spread Heads and less committed fans who nonetheless appreciate a good jam session.
"Our fans don't cause trouble; they're active," says drummer Todd Nance. "Everybody's up, dancing and stuff. They're not into hurting each other or moshing or stage diving or stuff like that."
They're committed, too. Many fans stood out front of the theater hours before the first Widespread show in rainy 40-degree weather, some hoping to score "miracle tickets" (a Dead term referring to free access to a show), others just taking in the atmosphere.
'We were just trying to survive'
"I didn't know this (success) was going to happen," Houser says, thinking back to the days in 1986 when Widespread formed and played small pubs in Athens. "I had no preconceived notions. I mean we were just trying to survive, but we're very happy with the way things turned out."
What musician wouldn't be happy? Though they haven't reached widespread radio acclaim, the Panic is one of those bands that thrive on the road, a hard-working group that gels in live settings, weaving their homespun music with the audience's energy to create unearthly performances. And no show is a repeat performance; the band aims for improvisation, using their songs only as signposts to the end of the show.
"The whole idea of it is not to be the same two-and-a-half hour show every night, so people can keep coming back and have new experiences," says Nance.
It's for this reason that most music fans have heard of the band, and plenty are still talking about the last Widespread show they attended.
"You can relate to a lot of the things they have to say," says Brooke Solis, a 22-year-old fan who traveled from Albany, Georgia for Widespread's Atlanta shows. "They're down to earth. They don't forget where they came from. You get into the music and they carry you along with it."
'The same vision'
And there's more to come for fans. Widespread plans a winter of work, putting together another studio album. In April, they will hit the road again.
But at this moment in time, Houser and Nance reflected on everything they have accomplished since their days of playing in a high school band in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They've come a long way.
"We used to play for a dollar a night at the Uptown Lounge in Athens," says Nance, who worked on houses to help pay bills during tight times.
"I was a pizza guy," says Houser.
But Houser maintains that Widepread's bandmembers -- lead singer John Bell, Domingo Ortiz, John Hermann, Dave Schools, Nance and Houser -- never got into music to make loads of money or live the mythical rock-star life.
"I think everybody pretty much had the same vision the first day they came together, and that is to just play," says Houser.
An original sound
Widespread Panic released its first album in 1990. "Space Wrangler," considered part of the development of their sound fusion, included the concert favorites "Coconut" and "Travelin' Light."
"The chemistry was always there," says Houser, "but the evolution took some time."
A self-titled release in 1991, followed by 1993's "Everyday," intermingled with tours with the H.O.R.D.E. festival, triggered name recognition for Widespread. "Ain't Life Grand" was released in 1994, and is the band's best-selling album to date, although the 1996 release "Bombs and Butterflies" is on pace to outsell it.
"Bombs and Butterflies" includes the track "Aunt Avis," which has a video that was directed by Panic fanatic and Oscar-winning filmmaker Billy Bob Thornton.
The band also released "Nine High A Pallet," a collective effort with acclaimed singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt.
Their most recent accomplishment: Touring the international market, from New Zealand to Europe.
"We had a great time," says Houser. "In Australia and New Zealand, hardly anybody had ever heard of us, but the people who did come had a good time."
Now that Widespread is enjoying broadened horizons, there are new challenges to deal with -- more touring, and greater responsibilities.
"We just try to keep the B.S. to a minimum," says Nance. "The bigger you get, the more there is."
And then there's the seemingly endless comparisons to Grateful Dead. Though Nance and Houser admit they have picked up Dead fans since the legendary band broke up with the death of frontman Jerry Garcia, there's the obvious need to grow away from the "Dead" label.
"It's flattering to be compared to the Dead, or any band we've been compared to," says Houser. "But it's nice when people recognize that we have our own sound, which I think people are starting to do."
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