Widespread Panic to return to amphitheater

Francie Johnson

Two musically inclined University of Georgia students met in their dorm nearly 30 years ago and started writing songs together. Eventually joined by two other musicians, they thought up a band name and began playing gigs at local bars and fraternity houses.

Since then, that band has released 11 studio albums, sold more than three million records, founded its own record label and played more sold-out shows at Colorado’s famous Red Rocks Amphitheater than any other group.

The two college students were John Bell and Michael Houser. The band is Widespread Panic. And their next stop is the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater.

Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, Widespread Panic’s percussionist, said he appreciates the atmosphere of the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater.

“The venue speaks for itself,” Ortiz said. “The Tuscaloosa Amphitheater is a great city project and huge step up from where we [started playing].”

Widespread Panic, named for Houser’s once-recurring panic attacks, consists of Bell on guitar and lead vocals, Ortiz on percussion, Dave Schools on bass, Todd Nance on drums, John “JoJo” Hermann on keys and Jimmy Herring on lead guitar. Herring joined the band in 2006, four years after founding member and former lead guitarist Houser died of pancreatic cancer in 2002.

The band, originally from Athens, Ga., played many of its first shows in college towns throughout the southeastern United States.

“We feel comfortable in college towns,” Ortiz said. “In the early years, that is where we played. We had a loop around the college towns, Auburn, Clemson, Mobile and Birmingham, to name a few.”

Thursday night will be Widespread Panic’s second time performing at the amphitheater. The band’s first amphitheater show in October 2011 sold about 7,000 tickets, more than any other show that season.

“I remember we were getting ready to take the year off, so there was a lot of excitement coming from the band and the fans,” Ortiz said.

Matt Moore, a Tuscaloosa Amphitheater employee, said he expects Thursday’s crowd to be rougher than most.

“I’ve heard that Widespread Panic is a tougher crowd to work with,” Moore said. “While some artists like Earth, Wind and Fire draw fans that are easier to deal with, Widespread Panic fans enjoy a rowdier reputation.”

Even though he doesn’t consider himself a Widespread Panic fan, Moore said he’s excited to experience the band live.

“I’ve heard some of their stuff but just never got around to checking them out,” Moore said. “I do look forward to seeing them live, though. Live music provides an immersive experience incomparable to a recording.”

Widespread Panic will play at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater Thursday, Oct.3. The show will start at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at ticketmaster.com, the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater box office or by calling 800-745-3000.