Shut up and drive

Widespread Panic brings improvisational magic to Cincinnati

By Rusty Pate
 Photo: Widespread Panic brings their unique Southern rock-infused take on the jam band idiom to Taft Theatre in Cincinnati on Sept. 22

Widespread Panic has been bringing its unique brand of improvisational rock to concert stages for the better part of 30 years. While mainstream pop success eluded them, the group has built a hardcore following of fans through word of mouth and constant touring.

Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz has been there since the beginning. He recently sat down via telephone with the Dayton City Paper to remember founding member Michael Houser, talk about the upcoming tour and the band’s place in the so-called “jam band community.”

I think any discussion of Panic should begin with Michael Houser. It’s been over a decade since his passing. How does a band deal with losing such a seminal force and how has it changed the dynamics of the band as a whole?

Obviously, the dynamics do change, but they change in a positive way. It was tough for us, mentally, physically and visually, for us to go through that process of Michael being sick. It’s like losing a part of your family. There’s a grieving time and there’s a time when you’ve got to let go and figure that he’s in a better spot and he’s not suffering. We lost an edge. We lost a cornerstone of our foundation, but it never meant we would lose focus on what we intended to pursue – being able to sustain ourselves with the music that we so passionately love.

Fortunately, we had some good people to help us out when we lost Mikey: John King, Randell Bramlett, George McConnell and now Jimmy Herring. Jimmy Herring took the position with 110 percent commitment. He’s an exceptional player. He’s a genuine person, and very knowledgeable about what he wants to do and how he wants to perceive it. He’s now an intricate part of Widespread Panic. – Sunny Ortiz

Any update on new material or plans to get back in the studio?

All I can say is everything is in the works – wheels are turning. It’s just a matter of when we’re ready to come out with some good stuff. Obviously, in our growth, we’ve learned never to go into the studio and not be prepared. We’re at a stage in our lives – there’s so many ideas running rampant, it’s almost too creative. There’s just so many ideas right now. Our objective, since we did take last year off, is to get back in the swing of things and get out on the highways and tour. Who’s to say when we’re going back into the studio? Everything has to be right. Everything has to come together the right way. Since we took off last year, to go into the studio in a controlled environment would kind of stifle us from developing our wares.

It’s in the works – it will happen when it happens. We have some good products coming out from our Porch [Songs] archives. We got some good footage from the pay-per-view at Red Rocks and we got some great footage from the “Wood” tour. The studio product will eventually come out, we just don’t know when. – SO

The group came of age during the rise of the “Jam Band” era. Does the band feel that label fits and what is the key element to that style of music?

I think variety is good. I think the label of jam bands – sooner or later, it was going to get labeled. It’s not structured. It’s not something you can’t tap your foot or snap your finger to because there’s so many elements in bands like that. To be in the classification that’s so unique as a jam band, we’re kind of honored and perplexed at the same time. Sooner or later, everyone’s going to have a title. – SO

You’ve also been considered a Southern Rock band. Is that an accurate description of your sound or did the label just come from the fact you are from the South?

We just happened to meet here in Georgia and we happened to sign our first record deal with a legend, Phil Walden, who was the head of Capricorn and head of so many other Southern Rock bands that we just kind of fell into that category. It’s just a label. Labels can come off, because nothing is permanent in this day and age. – SO

You make a conscious effort to constantly change your set lists and song arrangements. 

I remember in the early years, there was never a set list drawn, so we were always shooting from the hip and whatever happened, happened. It’s always for the fans. If they come to multiple shows in a row, which a lot of our fans do, they don’t want to hear the same songs over and over again – they like a little diversity. So, we like to change it up and mix it around. A little diversity goes a long way. We’re in control of that little piece of the business and its fun. – SO


Widespread Panic will play the Taft Theater in Cincinnati on Sunday, Sept. 22. Tickets are $39.50 for reserved, $50 for pit seats and are available through Ticketmaster. For more information, visit


Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at


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Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at

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