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Getting the Panic

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I have never seen Widespread Panic live. I have a couple of their CDs and I freely admit I didn’t “get” those. But now, having read Joshua Hyatt’s observations in – of all places – Fortune Small business – I have an understanding of their appeal. Maybe I’ll see them someday – it kind of sounds like a Rocky Horror-on-granola experience:

    No sooner has the band Widespread Panic taken the stage at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater than I notice that everyone in the audience is pointing at me. Some use both index fingers; others jab in my direction with just one. Okay, I know I stand out from the other 9,399 audience members. My new FSB baseball cap, with its stiff brim, is facing forward. While other heads bob to the opening bars of Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country?” mine builds up to a rhythmic quiver. I am wearing a blue blazer, which has been slapped with a yellow schools’ zone sticker, featuring the distinctively distended silhouette of Dave Schools, the band’s bassist. Wherever I walk, fans tap the sticker, then give me a thumbs-up accompanied by a we-both-know-what-that-means glance. I don’t, of course. And when I confess my ignorance to Kevin Teel, a 35-year-old diehard (104 shows) who is (I’m not making this up) an industrial hearing-testing program salesman and is sitting—actually standing, like everybody else—in the fifth row, he pats me on the back and puts me at ease. “The Schools’ Zone,” he assures me with a thumbs up, “is where you want to be.” Whew!

    I resume my awkward shuffling, only to feel something hit my back. A marshmallow lands at my overdressed feet—a tribute perhaps to “Cream Puff War,” a punkish Grateful Dead song the band covers? That’s what somebody tells me, but nobody’s sure how the ritual began. Still, when I feel drops of water pelting me, I’m proud that I get it: The bluesy band has broken into Van Morrison’s classic “And It Stoned Me.” Folks reflexively flick their water bottles as soon as the sextet reaches the three-peated line: “Oh, the water.”

    ….That being the case, Widespread Panic doesn’t sustain itself by selling a shrinkwrapped product. Like business consultants and tax attorneys, these folks make money only when they work—that is, up on stage providing “the soundtrack to this big party that’s going on,” as drummer Todd Nance puts it. Widespread Panic sells the experience of seeing its live performance, which is even airier than it sounds. “You’re calling nothing something, and you’re selling that,” explains John Bell, the band’s 41-year-old co-founder. “It’s like Seinfeld.”

    ….The band isn’t interested in following the conventional path to big bucks. It won’t play at most radio-sponsored shows, Bell says, because Widespread Panic “can’t express itself in an hour.” He gives a similar reason for turning down a feeler about opening for the Rolling Stones. “Our fans would be disappointed.” The band has played twice on The Late Show With David Letterman (and once on The Tonight Show last August) because “it felt right.” Serving those fans remains a priority even in New York City, where tickets cost just $45 (the average Garden price is $65 to $75), so true believers can soak up both nights. Without them, as I now know, there’s no show.

    Driving with Nance to the gig that afternoon, I ask him as we approach Red Rocks, Wouldn’t all these folks lining the streets explode into, well, widespread panic if they knew you were in the car? Not at all, he insists. To prove it, he turns and waves out the window. One fan, draped in tie-dye, smiles broadly and then—of course—points. “It’s not like we’re the Beatles or anything,” Nance says quietly. “Here, the band and the audience are responsible for each other’s existence.” Finally, I’m convinced he’s right.

I am pleased to see more and more attention paid to bands that don’t fit into the typical media machinery of radio, videos and the major labels – given the state of the biz, it’s something we’re going to be hearing more and more about. The Dead’s model has proved prophetic and profitic.

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About Eric Olsen