Jamming for Dollars

Taking a cue from road warriors like the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic makes its money the old-fashioned way

"The whole system is," says Ortiz, "hopefully one song will put you on the charts and everybody will go out and buy that album and pick up the [back] catalogue."

Ortiz believes that the insular nature of Spreadheads (folks who follow the band like Deadheads) may be keeping the band from breaking through to a wider audience. Fans might be telling other people to go to concerts, but that doesn't mean they are telling people to buy the group's records.

"Our fans are pretty much laid-back. You almost have to push them into going out and buying anything," Ortiz says. "Their whole concept is they feel like we're their own private little band; they're not holding us back, but they really want to keep us to themselves."

Tape 'em if you got 'em: Widespread Panic offers fans a real take-home experience.
Danny Clinch
Tape 'em if you got 'em: Widespread Panic offers fans a real take-home experience.

While the group has focused more on touring and jamming than on songwriting in the past, it now is striving to get out of the jam band ghetto. For 'Til the Medicine Takes, Panic was consciously hoping for a radio hit. To that end, it went for polish and variety, enlisting a producer with a track record, John Keane (R.E.M., Indigo Girls), borrowing the Dirty Dozen Brass Band for the New Orleans-influenced "Christmas Katie," recruiting soulstress Dottie People for backing vocals on "All Time Low" and even getting Colin Butler of Big Ass Truck to add some scratching to "Dyin' Man." The record is what happens when a band throws a bunch of stuff against the wall to see what sticks. A little soul, a little jazz, a little hip-hop and a lot of freewheeling rock. All in pop-song time, under three or four minutes, and all finely produced.

"We had so much time on our hands. We started the album on January 11 and didn't finish until March 31, and we used every minute of it," says Ortiz with a laugh. "We wanted to have the majority of these songs under that four-minute time frame. We really wanted to get some songs that were more radio-friendly, and we really wanted to mix up arrangements more than we had on the previous album."

Though no radio hit has emerged from Medicine, it wasn't a last-ditch effort on the band's part. As long as there are people taping its music, the band will be on the road. And as long as the band can keep selling 100,000 copies of its albums, Capricorn should be pleased.

Widespread Panic is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, October 5, at Celebrity Theatre. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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