This is a week when most people are out celebrating Halloween -- which is good enough reason to get out and party. Once Tuesday night rolls around, however, fans of the band Widespread Panic have something more to rejoice about. The band returns to Brady Theater for its first Tulsa show in over two years and first performance here since taking a much deserved break following the band's 25th anniversary tour.
Fortunately, I was able to catch up with drummer Todd Nance last week in advance of the band's arrival in Tulsa. At that time he shared that the band was enjoying being back on the road, stating "it's always a good time." The band was relaxing with a week off before heading back out on a routing that will bring the group through Tulsa while headed to New Orleans for Halloween.
Of course, foremost in my mind was the band's hiatus in 2012. Obviously, all is well in Panic Land again with the band back out and delivering shows that have brought positive reviews from fans and critics alike, but I still had to wonder what invoked the extended break. Was it a sense of burnout, a need for everyone to get a chance to explore side projects, or simply a well-earned opportunity to rest and rejuvenate?
"It was sort of a battery recharge, really," Nance explained openly. "That's been our only hiatus in 27 years, so I think that's pretty good. And we were all ready to get back out and happy to be back out on the road once we got back together."
That renewed energy and joy has been obvious in Widespread's shows this year, as the band has reconvened with a renewed sense of purpose and been delivering shows that fans have been calling some of their best in years.
When looking back on the band's history, a real turning point seemed to come with the arrival of guitarist Jimmy Herring in 2006. When asked how Herring's arrival affected the chemistry of the band, Nance said, "Jimmy kind of got us back on track."
He added: "It's hard to shake losing someone like that."
Founding guitarist Michael Houser lost a battle with pancreatic cancer, passing away in 2002, and George McConnell stepped in until his departure in 2006.
"When Jimmy joined, it sounded like it was supposed to again. Jimmy was our first choice to begin with, but he was already committed to The Dead (Herring was part of Phil Lesh & Friends, touring with Lesh and The Dead until his departure in November 2006)," Nance added. "So it was a good day when he finally came on board and joined us. That's when everything started to feel right again."
Even after 27 years, Widespread Panic continues to grow and evolve. Upon returning to the road in April for a stretch of shows across the Midwest and South, the band introduced a few new innovations to the audio broadcast of its live performances.
The band has long been known for allowing its audience to record and trade copies of shows, as has been become common practice within the jam band community. Up until the current tour, it had also allowed select tapers to simulcast live shows via the internet for what became known as "The Couch Tour." In April, the band took over the Couch Tour and started broadcasting live sound board recordings via Mixlr.com and the Mixlr smartphone app.
"We wanted to make sure it was done right and working well before we took over, because that's a hard thing to build back up with the fans if you mishandle it," Nance said. "It all seems to be working well and people are happy with it, though, because we're mostly hearing good things."
Of course, fans are also happy because Widespread Panic is delivering some of its most energetic shows in years while still keeping with the practice of not playing the same show twice. When speaking with lead singer and guitarist John Bell on the last tour, he admitted that the band keeps copies of recent set lists posted backstage along with a list of the band's catalog of songs in order to keep things fresh. That way each night changes up to keep things interesting for the band as well as the fans. That tradition continues to carry on, which promises to bring Tulsa an energetic and reinvigorated show.
When asked what the immediate future holds for Widespread Panic, Nance shared that the band has already been writing for the next album. "We'll woodshed in January to try and work everything out and see what we've got before we book any time in the studio," he explained of the process.
When asked about the time frame and expectations that the band would likely try to get the album recorded in time to hit the road again in April, he responded without a pause, however: "Yeah, that sounds about right!"
Even with a quarter-century of touring under the band's belt, Widespread Panic shows no signs of slowing down. The brief respite in 2012 proved to only rekindle the band's fire and focus, and Tulsa gets to reap the rewards when the band returns to Brady Theater on Tuesday, Oct. 29, for a little pre-Halloween celebration that longtime fans and newbies alike can revel in.
As of press time, a limited number of tickets were still available for $37 plus service charges. This is a great time to catch Widespread Panic as the group opens the next chapter of its story fully recharged.
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