Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Long, Strange Trip

By Mark Jordan

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  As part of the post-Grateful Dead generation of jam bands known for their long and unpredictable live shows, Athens, Georgia’s Widespread Panic understandably spend a lot of time on the road, playing as many as 175 dates a year.

So when keyboardist John “jOjO” Herman gets home to his little place in Taylor, Mississippi, just five miles outside of Oxford, you would think he would want just to relax in front of the TV or something. But instead, he heads into the pen out back and starts slinging the slop.

“I raise bush hogs,” says Herman. “I’ve got about 15 head right now. I needed something to get rid of all the kudzu down there. So, I just started raising bush hogs, and they eat the kudzu up. … They just get fat and then we cook them up for dinner.”

It’s an unusual hobby for a player in a band of Widespread Panic’s stature. After all, though you may not see them on MTV or at many of the annual awards shows, Widespread has followed the example of their inspiration, the Grateful Dead, and become one of the top touring bands around. They routinely sell out tours at home and abroad, and, like the Dead before them, they’re followed on tour by a caravan of fans who catch as many shows as they can.

“We have a lot of friends and see a lot of familiar faces on the road,” Herman says. “And it’s good to see the same people at every show on the road. I like the continuity. It’s also a big reason behind why we don’t repeat songs, because we know a lot of the same people are at the shows night after night.”

That pressure to play a fresh, original show every night has led Widespread Panic to hone themselves into one of the better grooving and exciting live bands. Herman, vocalist John Bell, guitarist Michael Houser, bassist Dave Schools, drummer Todd Nance, and percussionist Domingo Ortiz play a loose, jazzy form of blues-inflected rock that, despite comparisons to the Dead, really recalls such Southern rock favorites as the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd more than anything that ever came out of the Bay Area. But, regardless of their true roots, references to the Dead hound Widespread, much as they do other neo-jam bands such as Widespread’s Northeast counterparts Phish.

If Herman seems resigned to that fate, it is because, despite joining Widespread only in 1993, he is a jam-band veteran. Before being asked to join Widespread, Herman lived in Oxford – having arrived there in the mid-’80s from his native “up North somewhere” – where he played keyboards for a similar improvisation-oriented group, Beanland. That band was a regional favorite that frequently played with Widespread until breaking up in the early ’90s.

“The guys in Widespread called me up one day out of the blue and asked me if I wanted to go on the road,” Herman recalls. “Beanland was kind of on hiatus at that time, so I went.”

Since then, Herman has recorded four albums and logged thousands of miles with the band. Most recently, Widespread debuted its latest album, the live double-CD set Light Fuse, Get Away, at a giant CD-release party in Athens that attracted a crowd estimated at between 70,000 and 100,000.

Light Fuse, Get Away is bound to prove a fan favorite because it captures the band’s incredible live shows, the source of their popularity. But the new album also points out a shortcoming in Widespread’s success. They may be one of the few bands that regularly sells out arenas but has never had a hit.

“One thing is that our albums are different from our shows,” explains Herman. “On our albums we concentrate more on the songs, and the songs are much shorter than they are live. … I like going in the studio, and I like making records. And we’re going to keep making them, and you know, one of them will hit one day. We know that, and I think everyone else knows that. We’re not in a big rush. As long as we can stay on the road and keep doing what we’re doing, we feel okay about it. If the lack of a big record meant we had to break up, then I’d be worried about it. But we’re very fortunate that we’re able to do the live thing and the records are just kind of gravy.”

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