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Growing old with Widespread Panic


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When Chris Malarkey was in high school in Richmond, Va., a friend tricked him into seeing Widespread Panic for the first time.

"I'm a huge Deadhead, and I got suckered: 'You've got to seem them. They're a Dead cover band,'" Malarkey remembers. "Of course, they didn't play any Grateful Dead."

Instead, they covered J.J. Cale's "Travelin' Light"—for Malarkey, an act of musical heresy. At that age, he loved Bob Dylan and the easygoing feel of jam bands. These wild, guitar-slinging dudes seemed too irreverent.

"This grungy guitar wasn't really my thing," he remembers. "With Cale, it's very laidback. Here you have these guys playing that heavy lead. It didn't fit. I hated them."

But not long after he graduated high school and began college, Malarkey revisited Widespread Panic and fell in love. Now he's a so-called Spreadhead, having seen the band more than 200 times. Widespread Panic has grown up, too, graduating from the tiny club he first saw them play in 1990 to the country's largest amphitheaters.

For the last 13 years, Malarkey, a Raleigh booking agent and club manager, has booked after-parties for these large-scale Panic shows during the band's almost-annual Raleigh appearances—first at The Pour House and, for the last four years, from his post at the Lincoln Theatre. The after-shows add a campground essence to the band's multi-night stands. It began when the band used to play Walnut Creek Amphitheatre; people would book hotels in downtown Raleigh, but they wouldn't want to go back to their room after the show.

"You're going to wake up, eat lunch, go to the show; after the show you're going to want to go to the after-show," says Malarkey. "Then you get up and do it again."

Music, of course, has long enjoyed the currency of religion among identity-seeking youth. As authority and adulthood begin to press in, related music lovers—be they goths, punks, backpackers or metalheads—can form their own communities. No genre has inspired quite the same fervency and lifestyle as the Grateful Dead and their acolytes, Phish, Widespread Panic and a score of successors. As those kids age, many turn away from the pack, divesting of those stints following their favorite band for mortgages and day jobs. But others, like Malarkey, have found different ways to track the band's evolution.

Widespread Panic began 28 years ago at the University of Georgia in Athens. Their sound has forever traced a similar roots-psych path as the Dead's, but they've added distinctively Southern touchstones that emphasize their native mixed heritage of blues-soul and rock. With singles "Hope in a Hopeless World" and "Can't Get High," they enjoyed modest commercial success during the '90s, peaking at No. 50 on the Billboard 200 with 1997's Bombs & Butterflies.

But selling records was less their intent than becoming a live juggernaut; their treks along the East Coast's collegiate circuit made the Triangle a favorite, fertile market. Last year, Pollstar reported that they averaged more than $400,000 at the box office per show, making them one of the world's elite touring acts.

Combined with Widespread's loose-limbed musical approach, that consistency fostered a particularly communal crowd; for fans like Malarkey and local attorney and political consultant Jon Lucas, it's a big reason they keep coming back even as they age.

"You don't make any plans at all and always run into the same people," says Lucas. "You live in North Carolina. They live in Colorado. You're at a show in Florida but you're standing beside them every time. It's so weird."

In 2002, founding guitarist Michael Houser died of pancreatic cancer; Lucas says the loss struck that community particularly hard, like the death of a relative. He remembers Houser's next-to-last show.

"The wind was blowing, and they were doing 'Drums,'" he says. "Mike just wouldn't stop. It went on and on, and when they finally did stop the band had to come out and lift him up and walk him off. He was spent. He died 40 days later."

But Lucas says that the loss of Houser only fueled the band and its fans to maintain the original mission. Following Houser's death, guitarist George McConnell, a former bandmate of keyboardist JoJo Hermann, contributed to two studio albums before leaving during a 2006 tour. Fayetteville native Jimmy Herring stepped in. Herring's familiar to many locally as a founding member of Aquarium Rescue Unit. He's also played with Allman Brothers, Phil Lesh and the Other Ones.

McConnell's tenure favored a substantially more limited setlist, but the addition of the versatile Herring allowed them to return to their habit of digging deep into their catalog. Though Herring is more interested in complex jazz and prog-rock ideas than Houser ever was, he doesn't always bend the band toward his will.

"He strikes the right blend of paying tribute to Mike," says Lucas, who played guitar in the Raleigh Widespread Panic cover band Boll Weevil. "He sticks to the kinds of melodic and rhythmic leads that Mike would play in certain places."

Just as the band's personnel has changed, so has its connection to its fanbase and the rest of the music industry. Lee Crumpton is the founder of the Home Grown Music Network and the manager of Big Something, who will play one of Malarkey's after-parties this year. During the last decade, he's watched Widespread Panic scale back its operation to accommodate a diminished market for jam bands

"It was a big part of the youth culture, and other genres like EDM and Americana are the hot things right now," he says. "If you remember 10 years ago, the lineup at Bonnaroo was all jam bands. Now you have to search pretty hard to find them there. There's still as many great bands as there ever were, but I don't think it has the same reach as 10 years ago."

Malarkey, Crumpton and Lucas were once fun-loving college kids who thought nothing of following the band around all summer; they now have jobs and families, so even single shows require preparation. If they leave town for Widespread Panic, it's a two-day getaway, not a weeks-long escapade. But they agree that the personal impact of the band and the community they've built hasn't diminished. In a way, it helped define them.

Lucas, for instance, remembers watching Widespread Panic at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre. He looked out across the mountains during the encore.

"Behind the stage is Denver, like down the mountain. There was this straight black storm cloud and then a divide and then beautiful sunlight," he remembers. "Then a beautiful rainbow came right down behind the stage. It was the craziest thing you have ever seen. For anybody that undertook that kind of commitment to this community and really did it, it's a life-changing experience."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Pervasive pleasure."


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