- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

DAR Constitution Hall may be the temporary digs for the highfalutin Washington Opera, but tonight and tomorrow, it will play host to one of the country's most accomplished jam bands, Widespread Panic.
"Maybe there are some props we could use," Panic bassist Dave Schools jokes via phone from Boston's Orpheum Theater.
Since forming 17 years ago around the state university in Athens, Ga., Widespread Panic has been a staple of the neo-hippie festival circuit and an enduring summer concert draw, despite selling few records and with virtually no radio or MTV airplay.
"If we sold a proportional number of records as tickets, we would be outselling Madonna," says Mr. Schools, who grew up in Richmond. "With bands like us, there's a general feeling among fans that what we do onstage is a better representation of what we do than the studio, but we've been working pretty hard to break out of that."
A bluesy Southern rock band with jazz sensibilities, Panic released its seventh studio album, "Ball," Tuesday the first without founding guitarist Michael Houser, who died of pancreatic cancer last summer.
"It's been tough, but it's certainly what Mikey would've wanted us to do. It's the right thing but also the hardest thing," Mr. Schools says of carrying on without Mr. Houser, who was 40 years old when he succumbed to cancer.
"Ball" marks a departure from the way Widespread typically assembles a studio album. After composing new songs, the band including singer-guitarist John Bell, Mr. Schools, drummer Todd Nance and keyboardist John Hermann traditionally has given them live test runs to gauge audience reaction and jell arrangements.
This time, however, the band mates went straight into the Athens recording studio owned by Panic friend and longtime producer John Keane and cut 13 new songs.
Mr. Schools says the band welcomed the new approach. "There seem to be more drawbacks to doing it the way we used to do it," he explains namely the voracious fans who take advantage of Panic's liberal concert bootlegging policy and meticulously compare studio versions to their live counterparts.
"They complain, 'It's not 20 minutes long anymore,'" Mr. Schools says. "We kind of set ourselves up for that."
Like previous outings, "Ball" is a stylistic salad of hard bluesy rock, laid-back Americana and jumpy Latinesque jams anchored by percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz.
"We basically went in there with a blank chalkboard," Mr. Schools says. "It was really anything goes."
Initially, guitarist George McConnell, who replaced Mr. Houser last year, didn't join the band in the studio. Panic's original lineup first had to get used to working without one of the band's core members, Mr. Schools says.
"What we discovered was that Mikey was really there. Sometimes you would hear a phantom guitar part in your headphones while you were doing a take," he recalls.
After that discovery was made, the recording process went off without a hitch, and the band has been gingerly working the new material into live performances.
"Since they haven't had a chance to breathe on the road, they have to find a life of their own," he explains. "It kind of goes hand in hand with what the band is going through in this transitional phase."
Though Widespread Panic won't have any trouble selling out venues such as Constitution Hall and the Orpheum, which both hold more than 3,000 people, the band's new album won't likely reflect those robust box-office receipts.
But Panic has an equable attitude about album sales: "Sure, every musician would like to have a gold record," Mr. Schools says, "but we're lucky to have this enthusiastic audience."

WHAT: Widespread Panic
WHERE: DAR Constitution Hall
WHEN: Tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
TICKETS: $30.50
PHONE: 202/347-1581 for information; 202/432-SEAT or www.ticketmaster.com for tickets

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