Widespread Popularity

Two decades of recording and touring have paid off for jam band Widespread Panic


Todd Nance, drummer for blues-based rock jam band Widespread Panic, can't quite explain how they got to this point, where all the elements seemingly fall into place with little effort or forethought. After nearly 20 years of recording and constant touring, he and his group have developed a near-telepathic way of playing, a cohesive musicianship best displayed on WP's latest album, Earth to America.

"I don't think it's much of a jam band record," says Nance, who's calling from a tour stop in Dallas. "It's just a good collection of songs. I think it's one of our best records."

Make no mistake: Widespread Panic, which headlines Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia tomorrow night, still jams, stretching out songs with funk-suffused, jazz-imbued textures.

"Second Skin," the first song and perhaps the finest cut on Earth to America, is a dark, snaking groove that blazes for more than 11 minutes. But where on previous albums, Widespread Panic tended to overextend songs with meandering, self-indulgent solos, the selections on the new CD feel tighter. Even the long tracks (the other, "You Should Be Glad," is over 10 minutes) don't wear out their welcome. The crescendos, the shifting textures and singer-guitarist John Bell's dramatic vocals keep things engaging throughout.

"As long as there's a flow, it helps with the collection of songs on the album," Nance says. "You have to let it be natural."

There has always been an organic feel to the music of Widespread Panic, reminiscent of vintage Grateful Dead, one of the group's main influences. Although WP's origins go back to 1982, when Bell, guitarist Mike Houser and bassist Dave Schools started playing together while attending college in Athens, Ga., the band didn't release its debut album, Space Wrangler, until 1988. By then, Nance, percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz and keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann had joined. (After Houser's death from pancreatic cancer in August 2002, guitarist George McConnell became a permanent replacement.)

Around 1992, after the band signed with the Capricorn label, WP's popularity started to mushroom. This was greatly helped by the group's appearance on the H.O.R.D.E. tours that year and in 1993. The next year, Widespread Panic released its fourth album, Ain't Life Grand, which spawned two radio hits: "Airplane" and "Can't Get High." Altogether, the rock unit has issued 17 albums, amassing a dedicated, cultlike following along the way.

For Earth to America, WP collaborated with veteran producer-engineer Terry Manning, whose credits include Johnnie Taylor, the Staple Singers and several other acts on the Stax label during the 1970s.

"There was no plan with this record," Nance says. "The last studio record [2003's Ball] was the first we made after Mike died. It was a recovery thing. This record is more [about] moving on."

Although the album boasts Widespread Panic's distinctive blues-rock fusion, the music is more charged, intricate and fluid. Save for two lackluster cuts ("Ribs and Whiskey" and "From the Cradle"), Earth to America is consistent.

"We don't write too much when we're on the road," says Nance, a native of Chattanooga, Tenn. "It's just play and sleep. That's all we have time for. We write when we're off the road. There's nothing to it, really: We just write songs and record 'em. There's no big plan. We like it that way, to tell you the truth."

See Widespread Panic at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, tomorrow night at 7. Tickets are $25 and $40 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.


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