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High in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Widespread Panic takes the stage at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, as its done many times before. But the day is June 30, 2013, and this isn't just another performance. With this show, Widespread Panic will leave holding another impressive attendance record: 42 sellouts, the most in the history of this famous venue.
Undeniably, Widespread Panic is filled with talent, and the lights and lasers that pierce the night sky make for a great stage show, but the Georgia-based jam band's 30 years of milestones can be attributed to one thing: the fans. Ask any artist about his fans and he'll tell you they're amazing, but Widespread Panic's followers are a different breed, and the band knows it.
"I'm fond of describing them as being similar to Star Trek fans," bassist Dave Schools says from a hotel room in Denver, hours before the band's record-breaking performance.
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A strange comparison, at first, but it makes sense. Schools elaborates on the analogy: The Original Series co-starred lead guitarist Mike Houser, who died in 2002 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After a transitional period, Jimmy Herring took over on guitar and helped to embody Widespread Panic: The Next Generation.
Like Trekkers, Widespread Panic fans tend to fall on one side of the fence or the other. "People argue about the original Star Trek versus The Next Generation," Schools says. "There isn't any right or wrong answers. Widespread Panic fans are a dedicated bunch, and God bless 'em."
Reaching Schools by phone is a bit like acting out a scene from a spy movie, offering obscure code names to a skeptical hotel desk clerk. When I talk to him, a radio is on in the background, tuned to an rock 'n' roll oldies station. Schools knows what his fans expect from the band, and he's prepared to deliver it.
"[The fans] are valiant [and] over-analytical to a fault, and they'll show up and buy tickets and get in the front row. Then they'll go online and analyze the show to pieces. Whether they like that show or not, they'll be back."
A suitable comparison might be the one that's often drawn between Widespread Panic fans and the Dead Heads who once tracked their beloved Grateful Dead to every nook and cranny in the country. Widespread Panic may not agree with the comparison, but the parallels are too similar not to note. What brings fans to watch Widespread Panic night after night is the experience as a whole — the camaraderie, the unity, and the shared love of the artist on stage offers people a musical elixir for life. The band accommodates them — and it's developed a reputation for never playing the same set list twice.
Local fans looking to obtain the Widespread Panic experience won't need to trek to Colorado — they can escape the heat a few hours north of Phoenix, into the ponderosa pines, to see them perform this Sunday at the Pepsi Amphitheater in Flagstaff.
If the crowd in Flagstaff looks especially relieved, it's for good reason: It was only a year ago that the band unleashed a different kind of widespread panic among its loyal friends by announcing a sabbatical.
"Hiatus sounds like a medical condition of some kind," Schools says. "I prefer the term sabbatical, where we go and refill our well. It worked; everybody came back rejuvenated, with new ideas. Here we go again."
Widespread Panic fans, for their part, are now nearly as relentless about their charitable efforts as they are following the band. Panic Fans for Food, funded and coordinated by fans, began by holding food drives during the band's performances. In eight years, they amassed 13 tons of donations, and by 2008, the band had taken the reins, creating Feeding People Through Music.
"We've been able to put mountains of food into the mouths of people who need it across the country. We've been so lucky to have a career of this nature for nearly 30 years. It's only because we've been welcomed into cities — and you have to do something for those people to thank them."
Their longest-running philanthropic effort is Tunes for Tots. Formed in 2005, it is a yearly fundraiser with the aim of providing money and instruments to struggling music programs in public schools.
"The charity work all started at a point when things in [WP's Georgia hometown of] Athens needed help. We were in a position to give back, and as budgets vanished in local schools for arts and music, we decided to make that our cause.
"Rather than sending money through the public school system and having some bureaucrat decide where it goes, we interviewed music directors to determine which school needed it most. Each year, we do the benefit and donate the take to that year's school. I think everyone in this band realizes how much music has meant to us, and it's great to see it in the hands of kids who need it."
From the beginning of the band's career, long before the Internet, fans have recorded Widespread Panic shows and traded the bootlegged tapes. Before the band had even released an album, it toured from Georgia to California, and the recordings spread so fast that by the time WP arrived in California, people were singing the words to their songs. That could explain why, in an age when so many bands are trying to control, or even prohibit, recordings of their performances, Widespread Panic actually encourages it.
"Right away, we knew we were on to something special, and our fans were going to do a lot of the legwork a traditional record company would do through an expensive publicist.
"Fast-forward to the way it is now and music is practically free — and I think it's for the better. We were never one of those bands [who were going to] make millions selling records. We needed our music to be heard so people would come see us play. We get what we need that way."
Widespread Panic is well aware its strength lies in the live performance, and its offbeat way of spreading its reputation hasn't let the band down yet. Beginning this year, the band has even taken over the fans' bootlegging work, offering free live streams of every show with soundboard quality audio. They've named it The Couch Tour.
"A lot of people are unwilling to change, and that's death in the business world," Schools says. "You have to change with the times and adapt. We'll do anything it takes to do that."