Speculation about Widespread Panic guitarist Michael Houser's health reached a fever pitch when he stepped out of Widespread Panic's lineup a few shows after the group's appearance at the 2002 Bonnaroo Festival. Out of respect for his wishes, Houser's bandmates remained tight-lipped about his condition. A month after Widespread's appearance in Kansas City last July, Houser confirmed fan fears with a statement on the band's Web site. He died less than a month later, after an all-too-brief bout with pancreatic cancer. Houser was an integral part of Widespread's chemistry, lending his college nickname, "Panic," as the basis for the band's identity and offering his sweeping guitar style as the core of its Southern-jam-rock sound. A week after his death, the remaining band members paid their respects in the most appropriate way imaginable -- by getting back on the road for the final two dates of their summer tour. After that, Houser's fill-in, George McConnell, quietly became a permanent fixture for the group as it prepared to plunge headlong into the studio. It emerged with Ball, a hard-hitting collection of thirteen blues, rock and Latin-flavored tracks. Unlike previous studio efforts that included well-worn, road-tested material, Ball explores exclusively virgin territory. Although it's packed with welcome surprises for the group's nomadic tribe of touring fanatics, it's also the sound of the band releasing an audible heavy-hearted sigh and taking its first steps toward moving past the pain.