Widespread Panic | More Than 20 Years on the Road

widespread.gifHow we put it all together is still a mystery to us as well as our fans, but we’ve been at this over 20 years. We never know where it’s going to take us – we talk about it at the beginning of the show but it’s all spur of the moment, how we’re feeling, what kind of vibe we’re getting from the crowd.  wp_022.jpg

Widespread Panic at the Fox Theatre, 10.16.07

Photo: Joanna Kleine
See more photos from the show in FLICKS

I have been a Widespread Panic fan since I saw them open for Blues Traveler at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis way back in around 1991. I was hooked instantly. Since that night, I have been to countless Panic shows in many different venues, and one thing remains consistent: I am never, ever disappointed.

Masters of the live show, the boys from Athens, Ga. have now been playing together for more than 20 years. They’ve weathered many storms, including the untimely death of founding member and guitarist Michael Houser from pancreatic cancer in 2002 – an event that might have torn other bands apart. But this band of brothers has only grown stronger and continued on to the delight of fans around the world. Last year, they released their ninth (and maybe their best) studio album, Earth to America; and this summer they released a compilation CD, Choice Cuts: The Capricorn Years 1991-1999, featuring favorite studio tracks from their nearly ten years with the Capricorn label. Even more fortunately for the legions of fans of their live performances, Panic offers free MP3 and CD quality FLAC downloads of almost every one of their stellar live shows sine 2005 on the band’s web site.

I always get excited when Panic comes to town – especially when they play a venue as incredible as the Fabulous Fox Theater, which they will grace with their astounding musical presence on Tues., Oct. 16. When I found out I had an opportunity to interview someone from the band, I was even more excited. But when I found out I’d get to interview Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, quite possibly the greatest percussionist that has ever played, I was beside myself. My favorite part of a Panic show is always Ortiz’ amazing solos. This man beats a conga drum like no one I have ever seen or heard – adding a whole new level of depth and dimension to the music.

Interviewing a member of a band you hold in such high regard can incite anxiety – after all, what if you’re let down? Fortunately, as with all of Panic’s shows, I was not disappointed. Sunny was a pure delight to speak with, offering long and insightful answers to my questions, while being ever the Southern gentleman. Typically, when writing a profile, I like to weave the interview into a narrative, rather than leaving it in Q&A format; but, for the many other Panic fans out there, I just couldn’t edit him -he had too many great things to say. So here, in its entirety, is my conversation with Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz – percussionist for one of the greatest jam bands to ever play a show.


You guys have been playing together for more than 20 years. How do you still manage to keep it going and keep it fresh after all this time? 

To us, writing is the big bonus. All of us write and contribute and we all come from different backgrounds. Me, I come from a Latin background. Then you have John "Farmer" Bell, who loves Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, James Taylor. Todd Nance, our drummer, grew up in Tennessee and Georgia, so he loved Skynard, Rush, that kind of thing.  Dave Schools loves like Bootsy Collins. Then you have JoJo Hermann, who has that professor long hair, New Orleans background. Now having someone like Jimmy Herring on guitar – he’s just amazing. He’s the talented new kid on the block. He fits our mold so we’re real happy he came on board when he did.

How we put it all together is still a mystery to us as well as our fans, but we’ve been at this over 20 years. We never know where it’s going to take us – we talk about it at the beginning of the show but it’s all spur of the moment, how we’re feeling, what kind of vibe we’re getting from the crowd.

So do you all get along great after 20 years or do you argue like brothers?

It’s like a marriage. You know how far to take it with each other before it goes to the next level. There’s a lot of respect for everyone’s space, everyone’s input and, in the music biz, like any business, you know how to express yourself to where you aren’t falling all over the place. You don’t dwell on the past; you just look toward the future. The business end of it is kind of a drag, but for us, we have learned and are still learning every day. We’re one of those kinds of bands that have a major input on what is going on around us. We have control in our products and what we put on them, the art, T-shirts, merchandise, right down to the venues we enjoy playing or don’t enjoy, hotels where we like to stay, etc. We’ve cut our own groove to where we know what makes us comfortable when we’re out touring for 110 days a year.

Speaking of which, Panic’s business model, much like The Dead and other jam bands, is based on continuous touring rather than radio airplay and album sales. Does it ever get tiring being on the road that much?

In order for us to sustain ourselves we just have to stay out there. Our main focus is and always will be our loyal fan base that has continued to support us for 20 plus years. Not only do the fans have to get to the next show -we have to get there too. It’s amazing, when you play at these major venues, you have to make sure you’re properly staffed, security is in place, all these things that we never had to think about when we started on this venture more than 20 years ago – these were the last things on our minds. Our major concern back in the day was if we were going to be able to pay our bar tab.

I think you have that covered now.

Yeah. We’ve made some right turns and some huge wrong turns, but we’ve learned it’s   a growing process. And we wouldn’t be in the position we are in now if it were not for the folks that continue to come out and support us. Live music is really close to me and I support it no matter what it is. It’s just a beautiful thing. It’s the old mystique of "what are the boys gonna do now?"

The band has been through a lot over the past several years following the death of Mike Houser. How has it affected you as a band and as people?

It was a huge loss to us and a big old stop sign for us. We had to reevaluate our priorities both as a band and as individuals. For me, it was like losing a brother, and for some of the other guys, it was losing a part of life. We had to come to realizations that, if we wanted to continue, would we continue in the same direction that we would if Mikey was still alive? We feel like he is. I think we feel comfortable in the direction we’re taking and we think that Mikey is happy for us, but it was an eye-opener and a rude awakening and something that we weren’t expecting, just like everyone else. If you never got a chance to know him, he was just a sweetheart of a guy. It’s just so unfortunate. It shakes you up.

We had to take a year off. We thought it was just time – it was due.  We still stayed in contact w/ each other, but just didn’t talk about music or anything until about two months before 2005. We were all kind of nervous when we started rehearsing again and even more nervous on the night of the first show coming back. The first set was just like torture. It’s easy to sit in your living room and jam and play together; but the fans just give us so much, and that’s the part where we were concerned, you know. We were like "do we still have it?" "Can we over come this?"   I think after that first set was over, we looked at each other with a sigh of relief and thought, yeah, it’s still there – whatever it is, it’s still clicking among us. And the crowd was still into it. That’s really pleasing to us.

Explain the onstage dynamic between you and [drummer] Todd Nance – how do you guys feed off each other during a live show?

He has to think like a percussionist and I have to think like a drummer. He leaves a lot of gaps or spaces for me to easily fit in, like a glove. My biggest thing is, technically speaking, is that I like to watch his foot. If I can get a clear view of his foot, I can kind of anticipate what he’s going to do next. That’s my key, watching his feet as opposed to his hands. Even at the beginning people asked us, "How do you know what to play, when to play?" and the thing of it is, we never think about it or talk about it, we just do it. That’s a hat’s off to Todd Nance for laying down that solid groove and staying on it. This may sound repetitious, but when you add percussion such as tambourine, or shaker, or bongos, or conga, you add some more colors and layers to it. That’s how we approach it live or in the studio. We like to lay different amounts of color and timbre to all of our songs. I’ve been real fortunate because the boys let me do that and, as with everything we do, we give complete range to the individual.

What’s your favorite drum or instrument that you play?

I actually love the keyboards.  I love the technology, the MIDIs; like you can hook a MIDI keyboard to a computer and get all these sounds. As for drums, I love the congas. I love that contact – hand and the skin of the drum. I love that feeling and those sounds I can make on the conga drum. Nowadays there’s so many new instruments out there that really aren’t new. Like I’m into sounds now – whether it’s a bird chirping, or the digital sound, a loop.

Panic has earned its place as a regular headliner at the Bonnaroo festival, which has grown into arguably the premiere music festival in the U.S. What has the Bonnaroo experience been like for you guys over the years?

We were the first ones there when it first started – we were very fortunate. We’ve seen it grow from one stage to 12-14 stages over three days. Now Bonnaroo actually owns the land they play on – they bought it from the farmer. It’s just huge. We feel honored to be asked to participate in it every year. We know there are literally hundreds of other bands that are more than qualified, so it’s always fun for us.

Of all the bands and artists you guys have had the pleasure to share the stage with over the years, who were some of your favorites?

I’d have to go with Branford Marsalis as one. Also Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock at Bonnaroo, Warren Haynes, Dave Matthews. Those are top five.  We have been very fortunate.

Who would you love to play with that you haven’t yet had the opportunity?

Stevie Wonder would be awesome. I love the old school stuff. I’d love to just do a show with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I think that would be an awesome show. I don’t think they would want to do it though. Van Morrison would be another, but he doesn’t tour much.

I remember once a long time ago, the Rolling Stones asked us to open some shows for them, but we felt like it would be an unjustified thing to do to our fans to play for only 30 minutes, so we passed on that; but we felt good about it. But Chuck Leavell, who’s their keyboard player, sits in with us, and that’s always a rare treat. He adds so much knowledge about the business and being a keyboard player from another era, another dimension, it’s just really enjoyable to have someone like that come in and spend some time with us. | Amy Burger

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