"Touring is what we do," explains keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann, calling from the band's hotel in Nashville the day before its headlining weekend run at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. "Sometimes our manager says, 'We should take a year off and go into the studio,' and we're like, 'No, no. We want to go on the road.' But we're not out as much as we used to be. When I first joined the band, we were out there ten, eleven months a year. So that's been basically cut in half."
Widespread has adjusted to this change easily enough, as evidenced by its already-packed 2002. April saw the release of Co-Balt, its second studio effort with longtime ally and fellow Georgian Vic Chesnutt. Quickly following was the release of The Earth Will Swallow You, a tour-film rockumentary of the band, as well as the three-disc concert recording Live in the Classic City, recorded in 2000 in the band's hometown.
Yet some fans seem to be growing impatient with the group's reduced touring schedule. Unsubstantiated rumors regarding the health of band members swamp Widespread Panic's Internet discussion boards, with much of the speculation centering on Houser, the Widespread's lead guitarist. Without the benefit of a denial from the band, half-baked conspiracy theorists have gone so far as to reexamine recent setlists and song choices for clues, much to the annoyance of the list's vast population of concert traders. One member retorted, "Hey, is J.B. still dead from that car wreck in January?"
Panic's response, as to most things, has been to play more shows. An eight-night outing in May culminated with three nights in Pelham, Alabama, at the Oak Mountain Amphitheatre, one of Widespread's favorite venues. But two attendees suffered fatal drug overdoses that night, and a surprise after-show crackdown by police resulted in nearly 200 arrests, tempering the band's relief at returning to the road. At the time of the incident, the band expressed its support for the actions of the local police as well as condolences for the families and friends of the two fans. But despite the controversy, Hermann believes Widespread's fans will -- and should -- have the same expectations as ever about its shows.
"Just be kind to animals, wash behind your ears," he says casually. "It's the same old rules. Just have a good time."
Widespread Panic recently resurfaced with a 24-date, five-week trek that began at Bonnaroo, included a trio of shows at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, and will finish with a three-night stand at the Greek in Berkeley, California, at the end of August. Given the bumpy trip thus far, Hermann admits that even he isn't sure what the next month might bring.
"I'm excited," he says before pausing for a beat. "I haven't really looked past Bonnaroo that much. After that, I have no idea. God, honestly, I have absolutely no idea what to expect. That's why I like it.
"Every stage just seems like home," Hermann continues. "It's very comfortable, up there with your friends, people you're just comfortable around. You look out, and it's like, 'Whoa,' but we tend to focus more on the music. Sometimes you'll just get on a stage -- especially in a nice old theater like those up north in Michigan and Ohio -- and the sound is just so good that you can just hear every note that everybody hits. When that happens, the jams are really the best, when everybody can hear it, just every little thing you're doing. On some of the bigger outdoor stages, it just gets caught up in a whirlwind, and it's harder to hear."
Another necessity on the road -- for both the band and its fans -- is a regular dose of variety. "We have our little practice room backstage, and if somebody has an idea or they want to bring in a song, we just pop in the room, learn it and play it that night," Hermann says with an audible grin. "That's one of my favorite things to do. That's what keeps it fresh. That's what keeps us sane."
Galactic, the New Orleans-based funk outfit slated to open for Widespread's upcoming show at Starlight, offers another chance to mix things up. "We've done dozens of gigs together and have jammed all the time. The last night I saw them was at a benefit for Hannah's Buddies," Hermann recalls, recounting a charity fund-raiser organized by bandmate John Bell last fall in Orlando, Florida, for children with spinal muscular atrophy. (Regarding the band's commitment to charitable causes, Hermann says, "It's just about keeping it simple, doing the right thing, but just doing it and not really talking about it.")
"I remember this Bill Withers song at the Gorge," Hermann says. "Galactic got up there, and we did 'Use Me.' We definitely feel a special bond with them."
Mixing Widespread's heavy mojo with Galactic's dynamic flavor might seem like a potentially dangerous move, but Hermann dispels any notions of possible confusion or communication breakdowns.
"Nothing's complicated," he says with a chuckle. "Music is never complicated ... or should never be complicated."