Widepread Panic on the Music Festival Scene: "It's Come a Long Way From Woodstock"
Photo by Andy Tennille
"It's still exciting," insists Widespread Panic's Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, "even after 27 years."
That's right ... For the last quarter century, Ortiz and the rest of the outfit -- vocalist/guitarist John Bell, vocalist/keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann, guitarist Jimmy Herring, drummer Todd Nance, and bassist/vocalist Dave Schools -- have been rocking and rolling down the road, from parking-lot parties to music festivals to swank theaters. And it has never stopped being, as Sunny says, "a big adventure."
Recently, Crossfade had an opportunity to talk to Ortiz before he and Widespread Panic ventured out on their latest jaunt, which will bring them to the Fillmore Miami Beach on November 5.
We chatted about the Grateful Dead, tailgating, the festival scene, life on tour, and whether a new Widespread Panic album's in the works.
Crossfade: You seem like you have the greatest job in the world. You have this devoted fan following. You've been together some 27 years. You guys must be great buddies.
Sunny Ortiz: It's a big adventure. Oddly enough, when I met these boys, they were just out of high school. They were into the Grateful Dead. That was their thing. But for me, personally, I never listened to the Grateful Dead till I met these boys. They were already in the fixation of gathering, enjoying the music, enjoying the scene. And enjoying each other. Our fanbase really enjoys that scene of pre-gig parties, the parking lot thing. Tailgating is the proper word for it nowadays, I guess. The fans get reacquainted with their buddies they may not have seen for a year or two. It's just like a nice family reunion. Age-wise we're talking about two generations of followers we've acquired over the course of our career.
The whole Deadhead phenomenon and the entire festival scene in general seems to have set things up nicely for you guys.
Well, it did, and it did for a lot of other bands too. There's Moe, Umphreys McGee, and a host of other ones too many to mention. It's totally amazing what has happened in the past 20 years. It's that whole festival phenomenon. Where else can you go for the buck and see your favorite artists, plus others you may not know? You can camp out for a few days and it's just great to see. On the flip side, what's not great to see is all the litter that everybody produces. But that's part of the yin and yang thing. You've got to be able to accept the good and bad. Still, it's just amazing how huge the festival scene has progressed in the past 20 years and how much its changed.
Widespread Panic played the first Bonnaroo festival, did you not?
I think we did, yeah. But nowadays there are so many acts that just want to be a part of that scene. Not everybody can do Bonnaroo. But still, there are all these little festivals that have been spawned because there are so many acts that are out there performing nowadays. Take the Voodoo Festival. It started in New Orleans, but now I hear they have a Voodoo Festival in Las Vegas. It's amazing, all these offshoots. It's come a long way from Woodstock, I can tell you that.
Which do you prefer, the festival environment or more intimate locales?
Whether its 1,200 people or 12,000 people, it benefits any band to be out there performing. We survive thanks to our fans, whether they've been turned on to us by friends or they're just bored and figure, let's go out to hear this band play. You know, "They've been coming to our town for 20 years and we've never heard them play."
We want to be in your face, but we don't want to force you to listen to us unless you really, really want to.