By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
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By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
By his own admission, Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz has a great gig. While most working Americans are quick to grouse about their jobs, Ortiz, the percussionist for Atlanta-based band Widespread Panic, exudes a level of enthusiasm that would likely make most people bitter with envy.
"I can't think of anything better," Ortiz insists. "It's a big adventure. It's like going on a camping trip and sitting around the campfire playing your music. Hanging out, singing, having a good time."
That freewheeling style is exactly what's made Widespread Panic a jam scene and music fest favorite for the past 27 years, ever since the group formed in its original hometown of Athens, Georgia.
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These days, Ortiz and the rest of the band — vocalist/guitarist John Bell, vocalist/keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann, guitarist Jimmy Herring, drummer Todd Nance, and bassist/vocalist Dave Schools — spend roughly half the year on the road, where they extol a populist vibe at countless festivals and prestigious venues before legions of rabid devotees.
"Widespread Panic isn't the kind of band that gets lots of radio play, at least on the triple-A stations," Ortiz points out. "College stations, yeah. We get some play there, but we're pretty much a touring band. That's how we sustain ourselves, year after year, through the great support of our fans who come out to hear us play.
"That's been our existence," the percussionist adds. "In this business, you either like us or you hate us, or you're clueless as to who we are. But we're still plucking away at it slowly but surely. And we're still having the best time ever, just like we were in our late 20s and early 30s."
Though Widespread Panic might be loosely lumped in with today's extended jam scene — a musical community that also counts Moe, Government Mule, Phish, and others influenced by the improvisational ethic of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and the many similarly psychedelic outfits of the late '60s and early '70s — Ortiz dismisses any deliberate adherence to the form.
"It's just a label," he maintains. "I think what we embrace more is the music that we put out. Whether it's in a studio or through airplay, or an acoustic special Wood tour, or on the beaches of Cancun or the Dominican Republic, it's all about the music. That kind of erases everything else and makes it all worthwhile. Label us what you will, but the bottom line is that it's the music that makes the label happen, and if that's how you want to define it, that's cool with us."
Indeed, given the band's reputation for spontaneity and continually switching up its set lists, it's clear no two Widespread Panic shows are alike. "We do different songs every night," Ortiz points out. "We've got a pretty good amount of songs in our back pockets that we can throw out there. You have six individuals that have their favorite songs, and six individuals that on any given night might say let's do something different. We like to mix it up. It's fun for us, and it's fun to see the audience's reaction. It's kind of cool."
The band's upcoming appearance at the Fillmore Miami Beach has piqued Ortiz's enthusiasm even further. "That venue is pretty awesome," he says of the place that once hosted the nationally televised Jackie Gleason Show live from Miami Beach. "I get tickled because I kind of grew up on that show. It's pretty amazing going down there and walking through all the levels and taking it all in. We've played so many venues, and there are so many stories about each. That's my biggest ambition — to write a book about all the venues we've played."