Widepread Panic on the Music Festival Scene: "It's Come a Long Way From Woodstock"
Photo by Andy Tennille
"It's still exciting," insists Widespread Panic's Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, "even after 27 years."
That's right ... For the last quarter century, Ortiz and the rest of the outfit -- vocalist/guitarist John Bell, vocalist/keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann, guitarist Jimmy Herring, drummer Todd Nance, and bassist/vocalist Dave Schools -- have been rocking and rolling down the road, from parking-lot parties to music festivals to swank theaters. And it has never stopped being, as Sunny says, "a big adventure."
Recently, Crossfade had an opportunity to talk to Ortiz before he and Widespread Panic ventured out on their latest jaunt, which will bring them to the Fillmore Miami Beach on November 5.
We chatted about the Grateful Dead, tailgating, the festival scene, life on tour, and whether a new Widespread Panic album's in the works.
Crossfade: You seem like you have the greatest job in the world. You have this devoted fan following. You've been together some 27 years. You guys must be great buddies.
Sunny Ortiz: It's a big adventure. Oddly enough, when I met these boys, they were just out of high school. They were into the Grateful Dead. That was their thing. But for me, personally, I never listened to the Grateful Dead till I met these boys. They were already in the fixation of gathering, enjoying the music, enjoying the scene. And enjoying each other. Our fanbase really enjoys that scene of pre-gig parties, the parking lot thing. Tailgating is the proper word for it nowadays, I guess. The fans get reacquainted with their buddies they may not have seen for a year or two. It's just like a nice family reunion. Age-wise we're talking about two generations of followers we've acquired over the course of our career.
The whole Deadhead phenomenon and the entire festival scene in general seems to have set things up nicely for you guys.
Well, it did, and it did for a lot of other bands too. There's Moe, Umphreys McGee, and a host of other ones too many to mention. It's totally amazing what has happened in the past 20 years. It's that whole festival phenomenon. Where else can you go for the buck and see your favorite artists, plus others you may not know? You can camp out for a few days and it's just great to see. On the flip side, what's not great to see is all the litter that everybody produces. But that's part of the yin and yang thing. You've got to be able to accept the good and bad. Still, it's just amazing how huge the festival scene has progressed in the past 20 years and how much its changed.
Widespread Panic played the first Bonnaroo festival, did you not?
I think we did, yeah. But nowadays there are so many acts that just want to be a part of that scene. Not everybody can do Bonnaroo. But still, there are all these little festivals that have been spawned because there are so many acts that are out there performing nowadays. Take the Voodoo Festival. It started in New Orleans, but now I hear they have a Voodoo Festival in Las Vegas. It's amazing, all these offshoots. It's come a long way from Woodstock, I can tell you that.
Which do you prefer, the festival environment or more intimate locales?
Whether its 1,200 people or 12,000 people, it benefits any band to be out there performing. We survive thanks to our fans, whether they've been turned on to us by friends or they're just bored and figure, let's go out to hear this band play. You know, "They've been coming to our town for 20 years and we've never heard them play."
We want to be in your face, but we don't want to force you to listen to us unless you really, really want to.
Given that so much of your music is improvisational and spontaneous, does that make it a challenge to transition from the live concert situation to the restrictions of the studio?
A challenge? No, it's not a challenge, but the hard thing about the studio is not having that connection with a live audience. It's a real sterile environment, and what we try to simulate in that live situation.
The spontaneity is still there, but you got someone in the control booth stopping you in the middle of a transition and going, "You know, let's go over that again." Fortunately, we've worked with some outstanding producers, like John Keene, Johnny Sandlin, Terry Manning. So we're kind of set in our ways as a band and we get to say who says let's stop or let's continue while we're running the tape.
Is that way you have such a predominance of live recordings? Does that make it easier?
We cannot reproduce that feeling of excitement that we get from the audience when it's a live situation. So it's tough to reproduce and by far it's more challenging to do a live product because there's so much energy built up. If you're going to make a live album there's just so much to think about. Number one is where are you going to record this, what venue are you going to record? Number two, will the venue allow you to record? And number three, if you do multiple venues for multiple songs, then you have to go back pick and choose what venue for which song are you going to use. So there's a lot of things to think about it. When you're in the studio, you get to run five or six takes of each song perhaps. It's like a puzzle. So there's a lot of work at both ends.
Can we look forward to a new Widespread Panic album in the immediate future?
Possibly. Everything is still up in the air. Our biggest goal right now is to do this next leg of the tour, come back to Georgia right before Thanksgiving and get ready for our Tunes for Tots event that we do every year. And then we'll get ready for the New Year's Eve show that we do every year right here in Atlanta Georgia.
How grueling is your tour schedule these days?
We typically do four weeks on the road and four weeks off the road. That's not as much as when we first started this rodeo back in '86, when we were doing 200 to 215 days a year. We've cut back considerably. But we cannot over-saturate ourselves.
There's just so much entertainment out there now, so any fan has to pick and choose due to school, a job, the economy. It's difficult to take three weeks off and follow your favorite band. You've got responsibilities. You got make that nut to sustain yourself.
It's probably safe to say, though, that no two shows by Widespread Panic are the same.
You're perfectly right. Sometimes we'll say, "Let's do an album's worth of songs and we'll do it from start to end." There's an evening right there. We like to do things like that. And at the end of the night, when they're looking at the setlist that they've written down or put on their phone, they'll go, "What? They did the whole Space Wranglers album!"
It's kinda cool.
Widespread Panic. With Bobby Lee Rodgers and Roosevelt Collier. Tuesday, November 5. Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $39.50 to $52.50 plus fees via livenation.com. All ages. Call 305-673-7300 or visit fillmoremb.com.