Panic renewal


August 11, 2006


Widespread Panic is one of the most successful touring bands in America today, but as its legions of devoted "Spreadheads" know, the Southern jammers haven't had an easy climb to the top.

The musicians have survived 18 years of touring; the cancer death of founding guitarist Michael Houser in 2002, and a yearlong hiatus in 2004 to reach the point where they're celebrating their ninth studio album, "Earth to America," recorded with producer Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, Al Green, ZZ Top) in the Bahamas, and released last June.

I spoke with bassist Dave Schools in the midst of a tour that comes to the Chicago Theatre for three sold-out concerts tonight through Sunday.

Q. How does it feel to be the other famous band from Athens, Ga.?

A. Are you referring to the B-52's? [Laughs] It's funny, because I have lived here for 23 years now, and one of the reasons I went to the University of Georgia was because of the B-52's. By the time I got here, they had moved to New York, but R.E.M. was starting to take off on the college circuit. People would bill "From Athens, Ga." bigger on the ad or poster than the name of our band, so all of these trendies would show up thinking, "Oh, more of that classic Athens sound," and then they would get us! [Laughs] Since then, Athens has proven itself to be indefinable: It just keeps cranking out great, unique and original bands.

Q. A lot of the press for the new album has focused on how you went to record in a tropical paradise, changing the way you made records in the past. What was the goal?

A. The goal was something we have been chasing for about five years but have never been able to accomplish: Just to break the mold of what we always did to make a record, which was basically living at home and recording at [producer] John Keane's [studio], where we have had lots of success. We just thought, "What would happen if we went somewhere cool, to one of these classic 'destination studios'?" I was lucky enough during the year Widespread Panic took off to put together a band and go down to Compass Point Studios to work with Terry Manning on the Stockholm Syndrome record. Terry and I hit it off, and I got a good chance to pick up the vibe of the area. You submerse yourself into an area for a while, and there is no way that it's not going to affect how you play.

There was a bonus involved, which none of us could have foreseen: We were all living together in this house, and we'd eat breakfast together, go to the studio, do our work, come back around midnight and have a few drinks while watching the moon rise over the bay. It was a really good thing that we were thrown back together like old times. We got a chance to get over things that had happened and planned what we wanted to do the next day, and it was a lot of fun.

Q. Do you still feel as if you have something to prove after the break and the loss of Michael Houser?

A. I think we prove that every time we step onstage -- or at least I hope we do.

Q. I know the band dislikes the word "jam," but it is important to the group to take the songs somewhere new onstage?

A. Absolutely. We'd go insane if we had to play something the same way every night. I think that would be my definition of hell. You know the "Saturday Night Live" skit where Paul Simon is stuck in the elevator playing Muzak versions of his songs? His personal hell! Mine would be being stuck on stage playing the 150 songs we have written in our catalog the same way every night.

But you're right: I have never liked the term "jam band." When it first came into fashion, there were a few jam bands, and I always thought that it was pretty limiting. It never spoke to the songwriting ability of the original jam bands which, to me, were always the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. The reason those guys stick around is because they have great songs, and the reason they were able to jam for half an hour is because those great songs had great melodies. I think people just assume we're another one of these jam bands that wanks around for 20 minutes, and they never bother to listen to the records.

Q. But not being hyped in the media has worked to your advantage: Your fans are incredibly devoted.

A. Thankfully for us, they are uber-fanatics. I don't know if it was the guy from the Sun-Times or the Tribune that shredded our performance at Lollapalooza, but he was overwhelmed with e-mail from our fans. It probably makes him hate us even more!

Q. Um, actually, that was me. I really disliked your performance at Lollapalooza in 2005, but I respected the passion of the fans who disagreed with me, so I thought it would only be fair for us to chat.

A. [Laughs] Well, it's apples and oranges, and there is something out there for everyone!


Time for some recent releases flying below the radar; first up: "...Until We Felt Red" (Velour), the third album from New York singer-songwriter Kaki King. Produced by Chicagoan John McEntire, it enhances King's breathy vocals and quiet, sensual songs with sometimes lush orchestration and mysterious electronic backdrops. Unfortunately, fans will have to wait to see her live until she performs at Schubas on Oct. 14.

  • The Serge Gainsbourg revival continues with "Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited" (Verve), which finds cutting-edge musicians covering the timeless pop songs of the legendary, lecherous Frenchman. Among the keepers: Franz Ferdinand and Gainsbourg's old partner Jane Birkin ("A Song for Sorry Angel"); Portishead ("Requiem for Anna"); Cat Power ("Je t'aime moi non plus") and former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha dueting with Kazu Makino ("The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde").
  • Finally, we have two bands with flamboyant female leaders that could play as shtick but ultimately thrive because of strong songwriting. Horrorpops is a Danish pyschobilly band led by vocalist and standup bassist Patricia Day, who's never sounded sexier or more dangerous than on "Bring It On!" (Epitaph), produced by Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz. Meanwhile, Chantal Claret of New York New Wave revivalists Morningwood proclaims herself "the Mae West of rock 'n' roll," though the flashy-trash/jailbait vibe she conjures on the group's self-titled Capitol debut has more in common with vintage Joan Jett, circa pioneering femme fatales the Runaways. Tunes like "Nth Degree" and "Jetsetter" are like M&M's: All sugar, no nutritional value, but absolutely addictive and utterly irresistible.
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