PRETTY WIDESPREAD: He had me for a second. OK, maybe three. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to win millions of dollars from, say, Publishers Clearing House? I have, but I’ve never taken the time to enter the sweepstakes – until this year.
The male caller, using a deliberate, robotic voice said my name before adding, “This is Publishers Clearing House.”
“Yes,” I said, my heart ready to skip a million-dollar beat.
“You have won an interview with Domingo Ortiz,” he said.
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I had been expecting a call from Ortiz, a percussionist, known as Sunny, who plays in Widespread Panic. But, being a member of a rock ’n’ roll band, I didn’t expect him to call on time, let alone early. He got me, but I should’ve known my chances to win any of Publishers Clearing House’s money was blown when I didn’t check the box to allow e-mail correspondence.
“You get to take me out for one night,” Ortiz said. “Where are we going?”
How about Township Auditorium? Widespread, which is back on the road after taking a yearlong break from touring, will play a two-night stand at the venue. The concerts are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. Wednesday is sold out.
“We’re coiled up like a snake ready to pounce on this first leg of the tour,” Ortiz said.
He really must be ready to play, because after Widespread’s Tuesday night show, Ortiz will join the Isaac Bramblett Band for a gig at 5 Points Pub.
Since forming in Athens, Ga., in the mid-’80s, Widespread has established itself as a premiere Southern rock jam band, an appellation that, along with being suggestive of a band’s sound, also signifies a notorious touring schedule. Much like predecessors Phish, The Allman Brothers Brand and the Grateful Dead, Widespread is a band that once lived on the road with fans going “on tour” with the band.
Widespread played the Township in 2003, 2007, 2008 and 2011. The band was a headliner at 3 Rivers Music Festival in 2000 and 2005.
So when the band announced it was taking a year off, the initial assumption was that something was, possibly, irreparably wrong.
“Everyone else gets to take a vacation, right?” Ortiz asked rhetorically. “It just made sense for everything to pass and chill and let everybody do their own thing. Everybody can’t make all the shows that they used to in college. We can’t certainly do as many shows as we did when we started out.”
The band also took a hiatus after guitarist Michael Houser died in 2002, “and that was for obvious reasons,” Ortiz said.
Widespread wasn’t dormant last year. The band played a handful of dates in Cancun, Mexico, and in the Dominican Republic. And it played a three-set concert on New Year’s Eve at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte.
The sluggish economy, ironically, afforded the opportunity for a vacation.
“It’s just real tough, sometimes, to compete with other acts,” Ortiz said. “People are picking and choosing a lot more now how they spend money for extracurricular activities. We were taking it easy and not getting out there with everybody else, all the other acts, and fighting for that dollar figure.”
Widespread, which is closing in on three decades as an active band, now has a typical touring routine of nine weeks on the road followed by nine weeks off.
“It’s good to be able to do that because you’re more refreshed when you come back and you’re excited,” Ortiz said. “And there’s a lot of new music among the cosmos that we’re excited to show.”
On the current leg of the tour, there are several two-night stands, and many fans will attempt to see both because Widespread doesn’t ever play the same set.
“We take great pride in pulling out songs that we’ve done once in three years,” Ortiz said. “It’s almost like a different town every night. Once you get up on stage, I think, and this is me talking, once you get into the music and look at that set list you see all the songs are different. The venue doesn’t matter.”
The fan feedback does.
“It’s almost like a surreal environment,” Ortiz continued. “After a while, you forget where you are. As far as a physical state of mind.”
When Widespread began, the members – currently guitarist and singer John Bell, bassist Dave Schools, drummer Todd Nance, keyboardist John “JoJo” Hermann and guitarist Jimmy Herring – traded music ideas on cassette tapes. Now they send each other MP3s. And with a reduced touring schedule, there’s more music to write and then share and experiment with on the road.
“Basically, we’re a bunch of guys on a big camp out for nine weeks,” Ortiz said. “That’s how we exchange ideas now. It’s the change of the times.”
A lot has changed in almost 30 years, but one thing that hasn’t is the music. It has allowed the band to connect with the children of fans who are now parents. Downloads and streams of the band’s concerts are posted to sites such as panicstream.com and livewidespreadpanic.com.
“We didn’t change anything about that,” Ortiz said about the music. “Obviously our fan base, I hate to use this, it’s pretty widespread.”