I‘ve been shirking my duties.
As your Dad and music fan wingman, I’ve been remiss for not yet to sharing my long-time obsession in a specific southern psychedelic rock band from Georgia. But more on that later.
Given all of the stuff on your plate in this 18th year of your life, I must say how pleased and enthusiastic I am that your music has become such a big part of who you are. I love how you’ve gotten good enough strumming the acoustic or thumping the bass to the point where it’s become really fun. I’m proud of the years of investment you put in.
I confess to feeling a bit chuffed when I hear you cranking Pink Floyd Animals from behind your door, or learning a Derek Trucks riff. Like how your brother can now fire a tight forehand frisbee into the wind, or whip up an umami gyoza dipping sauce, it’s a bit of a parenting win, for sure. I’ll take it.
I admire the way your repertoire of music interests flows so easily and broadly. I also feel somehow a bit proud of my contribution to your wide listening instincts, but even your Spotify listening diversity stats are wider than mine.
For me, I’ll give an assist to my college roommate Rob for this when we lived together with Mike when we were 18 and 19.
First, it helps to contemplate the the way we consumed music in the mid-80s. The FM radio was mostly only relevant in the car when you would spin a dial and hope to get lucky, landing on the new Howard Jones single, or something cooler. It was like roulette and the odds for better stuff tended to be on either extreme of the FM dial (mHz lower than 89 or higher than 107) where the smaller stations somehow survived. On a long road trip, it was solid gold to find a station that was any good, and it was inevetably a letdown when the tell tale static would begin — ever worsening as we’d drive further from the transmitter and gradually out of its range.
When I was your age, it was all about tapes.
In the mid-80s a shift began to happen, as we were in transition in how we listened to music. The vinyl of your grandparents houses had been already been largely killed off by tape cassettes which were then beginning to cede way to the shiny new CDs. I arrived on campus with a couple of shoeboxes full of tapes, and my freshman roommate Drew brought with him a CD player — and a handful of CDs including the current Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms which we cranked up really loud.
So when Joshua Tree came out in March 1987 in the winter of our freshman year, I walked twenty minutes off-campus to a record store on 9th Street and plunked down my cash for my first ever purchased CD, joining the “Best of the Doobies” (my first vinyl album purchase) which I spontaneously bought for $5.88 (on sale) in 1979 at at department store called Best.
That day in Durham, basking in the glory of walking home with my new CD, I distinctively remember marvelling at the ingeniousness of the record store management who had priced the CD at a seemingly arbitrary amount, but when my $13.27 CD rang up for fourteen even, I was somehow delighted.
Back to Rob. Rob was my sophomore roommate, and he had a massive music collection. Together with Mike, we were able to hodgepodge a pretty decent audio setup for our one-room triple. One room triple is exactly what it sounds like. Three dudes living in one room. One room. It was the best year of my life so far.
Did I mention the room was small?
It was one medium sized rectangular room (and a bay window) with a small closet which got so impacted with random things that it became lost square footage. Toilets and showers down the hall. To be fair, the room was designed to be a double, and there could have been some self-inflicted pain in being agreeable to the setup. It was on the best floor.
With hastily made wooden lofts for mattresses, we made it work. The lofts were pounded together with cheap lumber and enough hardware to survive the year. It turned out the lofts became sturdier when you drive a giant nail through the sidebeam and into the plaster wall. Eventually, though, it creates a whole big enough to become a liability on the end-of-the-year room security deposit — cash which which we all depended on to fund the Myrtle Beach shenanigans after finals. But nothing some plain white Crest toothpaste wasn’t able to take care of, oozed into the plaster hole, just so.
It was cozy. We spent a LOT of time in that room our sophomore year. We played a LOT of cards. And listened to a LOT of music. A few CDs, but mostly the tapes.
Between the three of us, we had quite a collection. Rob had by far the biggest one. He had evidently mastered defrauding Colombia House and collected 7 tapes for one cent under multiple false identities.
(Invoking statue of limitations here)
Despite space being at such a premium in the room, our tape collection enjoyed prime location taking up the entire top drawer in the main bureau, tapes stacked 6 or 7 rows across, twenty deep, and double decker in places. It was a motley crew of probably almost 200 tapes. The stereo sat on the dresser, so having the tape stash right on deck was the obvious setup.
Our tapes were a combination of legit bought at retail, and bootlegs. The store bought ones would have each side of the album on opposite sides of the tape, each about 20-odd minutes per side — five, sometimes six songs. After listening to Side A you’d flip it over and hear Side B.
Most tapes though were copies of other stuff — recorded off of a turntable, or recorded tape-to-tape with a duel tape deck. The blank tapes were 90 minutes total — 45 minutes per side. This was exactly the right length to capture both sides of a 33 record, so you had one full album on each side. It was important to be thoughtful of what stuff might pair well together on the same tape Like putting Foreigner 4 on the opposite side of Styx Paradise Theatre.
In the dorm room it was pretty much ‘dealer choice’ for whomever was motivated enough to get up to flip the tape over or put in a new one. Naturally, a predictable rota of favorite tapes emerged.
Around that time, I remember driving in the car with one of our friends and she was cranking Peter Gabriel So on the car stereo.
Such a great album. We got to the end of Side A she reached over and hit the rewind button. ‘What are you doing??’ I think, eager to hear “In Your Eyes” start up Side B. She confessed she loved the first side so much, she’d never even bothered listening to the second side, just rewinding and listening to Side A again over and over. SMH.
In our dorm room, after a time, we realized we were hearing the same stuff a lot, and around November ’88, a couple months into the school year year, Rob came up with an ingenious idea to flip the cassette box up-side-down (hiding the label) after we heard each tape. Once listened to, that recording was then “off the table”, and the next selection would have to get pulled from whatever remained unplayed in the collection. We’d listen to every one. In all, it was a couple hundred hours of stuff to get through.
This is how I got schooled on Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Run DMC and how they got turned on to the Alarm, the Hooters, Wang Chung and Oingo Boingo. Between us we had so much covered. Jimi. Santana. The Stones. Kraftwerk. Miles. And a whole lot of crap too.
At the beginning, it was really easy, as there was always something you wanted to hear, available to be chosen. The Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd selection alone was massive. After a while, we learned to look for moments when we could knock out some obscure stuff (crap), even if the moment could have been better matched with an alternative soundtrack.
By the end, I remember we were rummaging through the dregs and suffering. I can’t even remember what was left, but by then the exercise had played its purpose. We surrendered, pruned the collection accordingly, discarding the rejects. We could go back to torturing each other by rewinding and replaying Push It by Salt & Peppa as many times as anyone could take it.
Only until after college graduation did I really discover live music and especially psychedelic rock. I saw my first live Dead show in Monterrey in probably summer of 1988, and had a blast, but mostly got caught up in the scene, and didn’t pay much attention the music.
We’d go to music in those days, but the festival thing was still small. In the spring of 1993, legendary Bay Area rock promoter put on a two night camping music festival called Laguna Seca Daze (acronym dog-whistle had to be intentional), which me and Paul, Gordon, Wis, Derek, Chapo, Jorge and Chip rallied for.
There was something for everyone. The scene was full of joy and the music tripped a fuse in my head. The lineup of bands was stellar, with seemingly every band at an apex of popularity at the time.
So the next summer when Chip saw the lineup for the 1994 High Sierra Music Festival over 4th of July weekend in Bear Valley, he went into motion. Chip had seen Widespread Panic at Slims seven months earlier on their first big West Coast swing, and noticed them joining The Radiators as the headliners. With the promise of sun, beer and lots of room to throw the frisbee, I claimed great-grandma’s A-frame in Bear Valley for the weekend, where a crew of us spent the weekend on the porch listening to the festival broadcast on the local FM transmitter, when we weren’t there ourselves.
At the requisite moment on Saturday afternoon July 2nd, Chip corralled us to make sure we were in good position at the right moment at the festival, making our way by foot down to the ski-doo center, through town and across Highway 4 to the festival grounds.
We floated through town, just past the lodge and store. A handful of hippies were filling coolers with ice at the general store. As we made our way toward the gas station at Highway 4, Chip greeted first one guy and then a few more who were wandering the opposite way. “Have a great show” he’d say, calling them by name. Do you know those guys, I asked? Not really, he said. Those were the guys in Widespread Panic, who had just wrapped up their sound check.
Soon to be heroes of mine, casually meandering through the obscure mountain town I spent countless weeks of my childhood, who were no doubt on their way to find a melted whiskey at the bar at the Bear Valley Lodge.
Just three hours later, slipping into darkness, Wavy Gravy took the mic and welcomed the band to the stage. After the obscure haunting instrumental opener West Virginia, they dropped into Wondering, sending their sound soaring across the valley.
I was instantly hooked.
That was my first Widespread show. There would be 47 more. So far. In five states. From 1994 onward, I found a way to catch at least one and at most five shows a year from then until we moved to Asia in 2010 (just five since). Mostly two at a time. A couple times three days in a row. I didn’t like to admit to the unintiated that I would do this. It somehow felt devious and even a bit embarassing. People would ask me, why would you go see the same band three nights in a row? I’d say, when you went skiing in Colorado last year, you skied Vail three days in a row, right? Well, there you go.
Widespread Panic had become a major soundtrack for my 20+ years of my life.
What makes the music so compelling for me?
The soaring psychedelic sound. Bluesy riffs. Jazzy improvisation. Funky beats. Some describe a ‘lingering lead’. Tension and release. The interplay between six players, creating art in the moment, using a 200 song repertoire as their canvas, never repeating a song performed in any three show stretch. The room they make for each other. The improv in the spaces created within the loose song structures.
And, there is for sure a tone, and it’s one of those things. It’s not for everyone. Jerry Garcia famously said that the Grateful Dead was like black liquorice. Not everyone likes black liquorice. But the people who like black liquorice, really like black liquorice.
And the Widespread Panic tone is like that.
Instrumental to this tone is ‘Mikey’ Houser whose nickname in college was Panic for his fear or propensity for panic attacks. Mikey makes the soaring guitar sound that so many songs are building toward or built around. In the 90s they did a “sit and ski” tour where they would ski during the days and play shows at night. So that they could ski during the days, they played those shows sitting.
Mikey discovered how much he liked being able to use both feet in controlling the delay and volume pedals — and in 1997 he never stood back up, playing seated the rest of his performing life (typically in his own cocoon under his mop of locks) while everyone else stood.
Widespread Panic is all about the live experience.
Part of what makes it so exciting is not knowing what will get played at the show. What’s IS known is what they will NOT play. Which is to say anything that has appeared in the prior two shows. Their active catalog is about 120 songs, with a shelf of many more which are rarities and appear only with particular inspiration. Before every show, the road crew prepares sheets of song lists, with song names redlined based on the most recent setlists.
The spontaneous nature of the setlist construction adds to the “in the moment” feeling of the band and the audience any given night. Heading into a show, there is always so much anticipation and speculation, as it is always good fun to try to predict what will be played, trying to pick up psychic hints or clues throughout the day wherever you may find one.
In the minutes leading up to showtime one time sitting in the upper bowl at the Greek in Berkeley, I noticed a fan collecting sheets of paper and $5 bills. He was running a small betting pool. You pick 10 songs and get one point per song played. Double points if it’s a set opener or encore.
During this run, I had been following things closely, and felt good about my chances, knowing what had been played and what was due. So I scribbled out a list, passed my $5 and my email address for any PayPal winnings, and proceeded to get 2 out of 10.
One fast learned not to hope for any particular song, inevitably leading to disappointment, while risking missing what was happening in real time. I once fantasized about how a conversation might go, if I were in the position to encourage a song selection. My conclusuion:
Why should they play what I want to hear, when I want to hear what they want to play.
Because so much of what’s special about this music is the excitement of the live experience, getting ahold of copies of live recordings was a must. The Internet was pretty undeveloped in the early and mid-90s, but soon bulletin boards sprouted sharing stories and publishing setlists.
Like the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic went out of their way to make life good for “tapers” who would get prime real-estate to set up their rigs and record every show. The band attributes their fanbase in the West, and especially Colorado due to extensive trading of tapes.
The way it would work is that someone would reveal they had tapes of a show — literally 3 cassettes (both sides full) to capture the whole thing. Then, on the bulletin boards there would be offers to “B&P” where the person would say “I’ll take the first 5 for B&Ps” — and a race to claim those spots might ensue. B&P stood for “blanks” and “postage” and what you’d do would be to send an envelope with three blank cassettes and then a self addressed stamped padded envelope for the person to stuff the tapes into and send back. All they had to do was tape-to-tape, and write down the song titles on each tape if they were nice.
You’d send your blank tapes to a stranger across the country, and pray for the best. And how exciting it was when weeks later your package came home to roost. At which point, karma encouraged that you’d continue the tree and share the tapes further.
One year your uncle Matt surprised me in the mail for my birthday with CDs burned with a highly coveted and long sought after show from New Orleans in 2000 where they had opened with the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. I was beyond stoked.
Nowadays, you can find it in seconds with a search on Youtube.
In 2001, Widespread Panic played an epic run of three shows in our backyard at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California. You were 2 months old. It was exactly one month after 911, and the country was stressed.
The night before the 3 show run, Widespread Panic played a private show recorded and broadcast for KFOG at some obscure facility just down the hill from our house in Emeryville. I was working for MTV.com at the time, and scored passes to the private event, in addition to the Friday and Saturday night shows I already had lined up tickets for.
I remember the energy of those shows. The stress of 911 on the country meant that by October 12, people were ready and needing to really let loose. Friday’s opener of a cover Pops Staples’ “Hope in a Hopeless World” was cathartic as the crowd instantly grokked the lyrical nod to New York City. I went with Jenney, Matt and my co-worker Quincy — a music programming professional by trade. He quickly pointed out that he was maybe one of like 5 persons of color in the entire place. He seemed to get a kick out of the vibe (calling it Widespread Picnic), and especially enjoyed watching your uncle getting his funky groove on.
Saturday I was down in the pit with Paul and Eric and Joey and a crew. I think I drug Seth and Mina down from their seats in the upper bowl to come join us Mikey side in the lower bowl during set-break. I was bragging to Eric and Joey about you being born. He asked your name, and when I told him, like everyone else his first instinct was we must be huge fans of Tom Hanks as Castaway came out eight months before you did. Then Paul told him that obviously you were named after the Phish song of the same name. When Eric heard your initials were WSP, he wanted to know if your middle name was “Spread”. Many high fives and laughs ensued.
That show was an absolute scorcher.
Widespread Panic - 10/12/2001 - Berkeley, CA | PanicStream
Widespread Panic 2001-10-12 Greek Theatre Berkeley, CA Set 1 01. Hope In A Hopeless World 02. Wondering 03. Climb To…
As much as I was dying to go to the Sunday show (never miss a Sunday show), I couldn’t justify even more favours and hall-passes and got punished by missing the legendary surprise afternoon sit in by Carlos Santana.
Tragically, Mikey suddenly died of pancreatic cancer in 2002 the following year when he was 40, playing his last show July 2, 2002 — exactly 18 years after I the first time I heard him play.
He was known to be sick amongst his inner crew, but it came to most of the community as a surprise, and he failed fast that year, playing til the end and dying just 6 weeks after his last performance. How the band recovered and reinvented itself is a whole different story and another chapter.
A Widespread Panic show is just four hours of a good ole time. One day I would really love nothing more than to have you as my wingman.
Which brings me back to my main point. I’ve slacked in getting you up the listening curve, so when we go, you’ll be schooled. Uncle Matt will be there too. Uncle Randy has been to his share of shows during Colorado runs in his day, so maybe he’ll be there too.
This introductory playlist is admittedly very old school, and singularly captures only a part of their wide catalog, and narrowly focuses on the earlier and original configuration of the sextet.
Subsequent configurations, like the Dead, have proven way more than just satisfactory, but are ultimately their own thing. This is not meant to capture it all, but to start where I started.
Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at things right.
- Listen from the start and go straight through.
- No shuffle. No skipping forward. No going back.
- Headphones on
- All in one sitting would be ideal, but not practical.
- Note: Spotify is a bit limiting when it comes to building this playlist, but I did what I could with what they have.
Mix Tape Liner Notes
Technically West Virginia was the opening song that day in Bear Valley in 1994, but an obscure 50 second instrumental that hardly deserves its own name doesn’t even exit on Spotify. So, Wondering (my real first) is first here too.
I like the bouncy optimistic feel. Little thinking makes the danger. Like the bassline grove and also the melodies Dave (bass) drops. This song was in the #3 slot on their 3rd studio release called Everyday which came out in 1993 and was the most recent release before I got turned on. Everyday became my main introduction to their catalog. I listened to it a lot in those years, and after.
Side note. If you listen super super closely to the opening of Wondering, there is a low whisper just before the first note — and I’ve never been able to make out what the voice actually says. Can you tell me what he’s saying?
I mentioned I listed to Everyday a lot. I had it on CD. By then we listened to CDs. Both sides of a record fit on a CD, so eventually the implicit notion of Side A (what people will listen to) or Side B (more freedom to experiment). So, listening to Everyday meant starting with Pleas. The opening notes of Pleas never fail to bring positive energy and enthusiasm as the intro to a nice run of songs. Don’t let it get too bright. Don’t let it get too sad. Don’t let it get too dark. Sometimes underneath a load is where I show my best.
And then… as the song trails off…
So… before it even comes, I can hear nothing in my head other than the low ominous drum sounds of announcing the entrance of… Hatfield. A little California voodoo.
You get a Riders on the Storm vibe meant to put you in the southwest in the California dessert. The song has different moods and micro climates throughout the song which I like. Some soaring solos. Sneaks up on you.
Next up is a 20 minute section from a show in Alabama that Spotify happens to have. Just a couple of weeks before you joined us in the world. According to Everyday Companion stats, this sandwich (Pilgrims > Diner > Pilgrims) is the only time on record these songs were ever played in this combination. Six times Pilgrims came before Diner, but never coming back to sandwich Diner, even with a brief one minute reprise.
Diner is a great song to hear in the first set, and me and Uncle Matt have had our fair share of epic Diners in the late 90s. This one is really long. At one point the song devolves into an unstructured free for all with plenty of air and space for everyone in the band to get their fill, taking turns taking the lead, and extending the already too long for radio 6 minute studio version to 16 minutes in this format.
But first, as a prelude to Diner is Pilgrims, assuredly in every Panic fan’s top 10 or higher. Signature Widespread Panic. Remember when I went to see Marcus King Band with Oliver when he was in town? I noticed the playlist the band’s sound guy was playing to get a vibe, and played Pilgrims. Mikey’s soaring guitar solos are signature stuff here. If you like this, check out the Pigrims on Panic in the Streets.
And, get a load of the enthusiasm in the crowd in Alabama. Love how one southern hippy hollers “hell yeah….” upon recognising Sunny’s tell-tale conga drum line that opens Diner.
This Pilgrims-Diner-Pilgrims is a great for a cardio workout. See if you can keep up, and meditate into hearing the whole thing. It is very hard not to let the mind wander.
There’s a notion of “first set” songs and “second set” songs based on where fans thing they are most suitable. Second set songs are maybe more haunting, heavy, powerful and Pilgrims I would consider a second set. But Diner is a great first set song, so here they are.
In rock and roll, there are some songs that are technically independent songs, but may as well be the same song as there’s no point of playing one and then not the other. Like Queen’s We Will Rock You pretty much has to be followed by We Are the Champions. You would be an idiot not to play those back to back. Or Side B of Abbey Road by the Beatles. You can’t put any of those songs on a playlist — God forbid someone his shuffle play. Journey had a song Feeling that Way that 100% has to be followed immediately by Anytime. This is how it’s done:
In the same way, Machine is meant to stay connected to Barstools. I checked Everyday Companion and did a quick pivot table after scraping the page with the stats on Machine (508 times played) and 42 of the last 50 times Machine was played it was followed by Barstools. So it’s like that.
Machine is an instrumental that is at times discordant and played minor keys with weird tempos. It feels angular, cold and metallic. Like a machine.
So, we all have to suffer a bit (about 3 minutes) and grind through it. The grinding through is part of a Widespread show. Over about 3 hours of playing, there will be trainwreck improvisation and cringy moments. Usually, the cringier something is, the more of a setup it is for some sort of epic jam. Phish does this all time. I tell my friend Tommy all the time at Phish shows that whenever Trey or Fishman belt out cheesy and atonal vocals, that it’s a set-up, to trick you before getting bowled over and blindsided by what comes next.
Some people might consider Machine a bathroom song. Means as soon as they hear it, the run to the bathroom, hoping to get back in time for a ride on a barstool. For me, the most redeeming feature of Machine is when it bounces into the dreamy intro of Barstools.
Barstools has it all. JB alternatively rapping, growling or crooning. Signature guitar licks from Mikey. Thumping bass. And a ton of breathing room throughout to make room for where ever any of the players want to take it.
I imagine sitting at a red smokey bar with pinball machines and a juke box.
And then, to end the first set, an extended Papa’s Home. Also from Everyday, Papa’s is a rollicking good time. This one, also the first set closer, has an epic jam that is like a long roller coaster ride. It kicks in hard right when JB says “… the dog has been wagging his tail for days…. Papa’s coming home.” Boom and off it goes.
“We’ll be right back”, indeed. This first set scorcher closer is right up there with the Grateful Dead’s famous Dancin’ in the Streets in Cornell 1977. OK, maybe I’ve gone too far.
Set break is usually about 35–40 minutes. It’s not quite halftime in terms of songs played, so good idea to fuel up and take a bio break and share some smiles, hugs and plenty of high fives. High fives are free.
The second set opens with a J.J. Cale cover Traveling Light one of a few JJ Cale covers and also covered by Eric Clapton on occasion. It’s the only way to fly.
Second up is Rebirtha is a crowd energiser. It starts out a bit rough, I’ll admit, but hang in there and try to catch its funk. But there is a big build to an awesome anthem. Fun and funky.
As the second set starts to settle in, we get a Last Straw which I love for the melody and tone and guitar solo. This version stretches out big and long and ends up easing into a soft landing set up for the sweet chimes introducing I’m Not Alone. These two songs have really always struck a chord for me without being able to say why. Particularly I’m Not Alone deeply resonates.
The 28 minute I’m Not Alone > Tie Your Shoes > Arleen is a recording from an April 1996 show in Huntsville, Alabama. By this part of the second set, people are either crashing and burning and have had enough, or are doubling down. This stretch has it and Arleen brings the funk. If you’re listening carefully, you’ll recocognize the reprise of the Satisfied rap which showed up in Barstools. This is a Van Morrison song that JB loves to insert in places, and it happens to show up twice in this mix tape.
Now that the funky New Orleans party has begun, here comes Coconut with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Coconut is a let’s this party started dog whistle. As the band grew its base of fans in the 80s they played a lot of frat parties in the south — anywhere near Georgia where they were based. The song was a staple and a crowd pleaser, and non fans began to expect it to be played on demand. Coconut appeared 71 times in ’89 and another 66 times in ’90. Then got shelved. Only to appear 7 times in the next 6 years, instantly becoming a unicorn.
So, in this song listen for the enthusiasm of a rare moment, combined with the horns from the multi-person Dirty Dozen Brass Band that bring it on home.
Chilly Water finds its way to help wrap up the second set. Chilly wet water flies all over the crowd as people fling their open water bottles drenching anyone around them.
Chilly Water is literally one of their first originals, and the opening track to their very first studio album, and is an awesome way to end the set. Only it’s not over as Porch Song caps things off. Having a good time. Time to live it up.
While some want the party to go all night, it’s time to slow things down. A sweet cover of Steve Winwood’s classic Can’t Find My Way Home. JB preaching. And to end on a calm note, finally circling back to the Everyday album, the night ends with Dream Song. You can do anything there.