‘We created monsters’: Widespread Panic percussionist talks 35 years building fanbase, playing Riverfront Park this week

Widespread Panic are hitting the road after a 16-month hiatus and will return to Wilmington for the first time since playing Azalea Festival in 2014. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Widespread Panic)

When Widespread Panic percussionist Domingo Ortiz was a junior in high school, his friends nicknamed him “Sunny” for his kind, funny and boisterous disposition.  

“I smile a whole lot,” Ortiz told Port City Daily by phone last Saturday. “I was always the one that was outspoken — and I was always the one that would get into mischief.”

Nowadays, Ortiz’s grin is a little wider since he’s back on the road with his Widespread Panic (WSP) brothers and comrades: guitarist/singer John Bell, bassist Dave Schools, drummer Duane Trucks, keyboardist John “JoJo” Hermann, and guitarist Jimmy Herring. Covid-19 caused a 16-month hiatus. It’s the longest they’ve paused from touring.


“We took a year off when Mikey passed away,” Ortiz said. 

He’s referring to Michael Houser, founding member who died from pancreatic cancer in 2002. Widespread Panic (WSP) also lost its founding drummer Todd Nance in August 2020.

The band pays tribute to Nance on their current tour, which kicked off at Red Rocks for three nights last month. They also dedicated a Sunday-night set to the late Daniel Hutchens of Bloodkin, whom they credit for a lot of inspiration.

No other act has sold out Red Rocks as much as WSP (over 60 shows to date). The band will cross off another first by being the inaugural national touring act to sell out Wilmington’s new Riverfront Park this weekend. They will be playing to 7,200 Spreadheads nightly on July 16, 17 and 18 along the riverwalk — a fireworks display ending each night with a boom, according to licensing documents obtained by Port City Daily.

“Fans are the fuel to our fire,” Ortiz said. “We always want to make it fun, we always want to make them excited because it’s that way for us, and we just want to project that to our fans.” 

Spreadheads are a rabid fanbase. Tickets sell out rather quickly to WSP shows. Only two stops on their current tour have availability: Memphis’ Mempho Music Fest and New Orleans’ Lakefront Arena. The latter is only available because it hasn’t gone on sale yet.

Wilmington’s three-night residency sold out in under 10 minutes. Although, Ortiz is hesitant to call it a “residency.”

“I don’t consider it a residency until over four, five days — when we pretty much set up camp and don’t move anywhere, don’t go anywhere,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s more economical for us to stay in one place for three days.”

Scaling down and playing only three or four days a week is something the band decided to do over the last five years. It was a step away from the grueling tour schedule of playing 200 shows annually. 

“None of us wanted to get burned out,” Ortiz said. “We missed out on a lot of things here in Athens — families, anniversaries, birthdays, whatever the case may be. Just being able to clear out the cobwebs, so to speak, of that grind was good.”

Now, with shows not happening for more than a year because of the pandemic, he said, getting back on the road has been energizing — a burst of much-needed revitalization.  

Port City Daily spoke more with Ortiz about hitting the road, how the pandemic affected WSP, and paying tribute to friends they have lost along the way. Below is the interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity:

Port City Daily (PCD): During the pandemic, back in August 2020, you guys lost Todd Nance. Can you talk a little bit about what he and Michael Houser imprinted upon you as a band? And are you doing anything to honor him during upcoming sets?
Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz (DSO): Well, we did a couple of his tunes down at Red Rocks, “Down” and “Blue Indian,” which Todd was a big part of. You know, Mikey is the one that got Todd Nance the job, so to speak, playing for us. Both Mikey and Todd were best friends. 

I remember when I came into the organization, the stories that I heard was Panic had gone through several drummers and Mikey was going, “You know, let’s just stop going through all these drummers. I know a guy that lives in Chattanooga” — because Mikey lived in Chattanooga for a while. And that’s how Todd Nance got into the program.

It’s just sad that both of them have left us. We all took it hard when Mikey passed away, obviously. We took it even harder when Todd passed away because he was a big part of this wheel. Even though there was a replacement, it’s just — everything won’t be the same, but it’ll still be Widespread Panic. Todd absolutely would want it to be.

PCD: At Red Rocks you also paid tribute to Danny Hutchins of Bloodkin. 
DSO: Yeah, that was so sad.

[The 56-year-old Bloodkin co-founder passed away of a stroke on May 9.] 

PCD: What did Danny mean to the band and how did the music of Bloodkin influence you all?
DSO: Back in the “lean years” — that’s what we call them — we shared a rehearsal space with Bloodkin because they felt sorry for us. Bloodkin was a band and we were just up-and-coming. Danny and Eric Carter were longtime elementary school buddies. Anyway, they had a rehearsal spot and we needed a rehearsal spot . . . and we needed a place to, number one, store our gear. And this was back in — let’s see, ‘86. So we met Danny and Eric, and it was just like magic: We got along with each other. We were always going in different directions because they were always playing in town; they weren’t traveling as much as we were. 

I remember one day I set up my keyboard at the rehearsal spot and I was in there practicing on my own. They came in, and just kind of looked at me, and I remember Eric saying, “You know, Sunny, I just can’t see Widespread Panic with a keyboard player.” This is before John Hermann. I’m going like, “Well, it doesn’t hurt to try to expand a little bit.” [Ortiz laughs]

Doing that Sunday show at Red Rocks, starting out the way we did, I think a lot of people couldn’t figure it out at first. But the more songs from Bloodkin that we did, it kind of opened our eyes to how much they really meant to our involvement in the music business here. And Danny and Eric, both are incredible songwriters — just like with Jerry Joseph and the host of other people whose songs we inherit, so to speak, that people just say, “Hey, you know, take this song, have fun with it, and all the best to you.”

PCD: So, let’s talk about that for a minute: With such a large catalog of music and covers, what’s the thought process that goes into your setlist?
DSO: We create the setlist minutes, hours, a couple of hours before the performance. So we never know what’s going to come up. But, as you know, we never repeat a set, or I should say a song, after about maybe four or five days. 

When we got back together before the Red Rocks show, we actually printed out our song list. We looked at each other and said, “We got a lot of songs.” We can’t do them all, naturally, so we had the philosophy of, like, “OK, we’re only gonna do originals.” But then we looked at each other and said, “Yeah, but there’s a lot of cool covers.”

Then we were like, “OK, we haven’t played this song in two years, we should play it or at least revisit it, so that if we want to do it, we won’t get up on stage and butcher it to shreds.”

PCD: Is there one percussive moment for you that stands out in a particular song and continues to jolt you no matter how much you play it?
DSO: Well, “Chilly Water” has always been really a fun song for me. We do “Fishwater,” which is always real percussive. I like a lot of the instrumentals that we do. 

All the songs that we do, to me, really don’t need percussion. I add it because it just moves me, and to me that’s the whole secret of our fans: Obviously, we move people, the beat moves people, melody moves people, the rhythm moves people — it’s just one big vicious circle of movement that we’ve always been very fortunate we can project and people respond. And it’s a circle we just hope continues on for quite a while. We’re very fortunate.

PCD: Your fanbase is impressive: You’ve literally built it at a grassroots level — not necessarily from top 40 hits. [Ortiz laughs] And fans love you for it. What do you attribute that loyalty to?
DSO: I think it’s because of our fans’ friends — and that whole bonding, the extended families. We consider our fans family. A lot of times it’s like a reunion of folks that don’t stay in touch with one another except through Facebook and Instagram — and, you know, a lot of people just love going out and hanging out with their buddies. At least before the pandemic they were giving hugs to one another, really appreciating each other. And I tell everyone, the band is just a small percentage of what actually goes on with our fans. They’re the ones that create the excitement, they’re the ones that are there for these multiple-night runs. They’re hanging out there, they’re in different cities and they come to really have a good time and hang out with their buddies. They deserve all the accolades because our presence wouldn’t mean anything unless we had the fans there. 

PCD: What about the connection to North Carolina? Do you think you guys have some deeper roots here?
DSO: The whole southeast, all portions . . . shoot, we started playing the Mad Monk in ‘94, which probably no longer exists there.

PCD: No, it doesn’t — but it’s still the iconic standard in this town. Everybody talks about the Mad Monk, still to this day.
DSO: We spent many nights at the Mad Monk. We had a great time.

The Carolinas, and even Virginia — Dave being from Virginia — I remember that was our circuit. We would start out here in Athens, and we’d work our way to Hilton Head, Charleston, Wilmington, Nags Head, and try to do all the fun towns that people want to go to, and hang out in the beach towns, which is not a bad tour schedule. 

Then we got to work in the interior part of the states, worked our way back down through Tennessee and then Alabama, and came back to Georgia, had a few weeks off and then we would do the circuit again, but in reverse. That was like our circle of states. 

We started to expand a little bit more by going up to DC and then you know to New York City, working our way up to where Phish existed. I remember during the early years, they couldn’t get any gigs down in the South. We couldn’t get any gigs up in the northeast. So we said, “Hey, you let us open for you in the Northeast, and then when you come back down in the South, you can open for us.” Well, look where that’s gotten us now in 2021: On both ends, we created monsters. 

PCD: How did you guys work through Covid-19? 
DSO: Well, you know, as a band our main interest was our family. And each individual family, so we wanted to keep safe all six families — band members, their immediate family, and then their parents, grandparents, and staff. It was just that whole trickle-down effect to where we wanted to do everything we could to rapidly move this. And the only way we could do that, obviously, was to follow the guidelines. 

As soon as our vaccines were administered, I think everyone — band, staff, crew — was in line to get it because [touring,] it’s a lifestyle. We wanted to get back to work, we had to make the initiative to make sure that ourselves and families got vaccinated, and we just passed it on down the line, saying, “If it’s out there, if the vaccine is out there, get it — no ifs, ands or buts.” That was our forte, just making the call and saying, “Hey, if you want to get together, if you want to see me, if you want to hang out, you got to be vaccinated.” And everyone was on the bandwagon; not a single person hesitated. 

PCD: I take it you guys weren’t practicing or meeting via Zoom? 
DSO: We just didn’t want to see each other until the time was right. Whenever we had to discuss things, we did a conference call. But it wasn’t like every week, more like once every two months — we would always check in with our management team to find out, “Hey, what are you hearing? What’s going on out there in the music scene? Is anybody doing anything?” Unfortunately, for a good four to five months, nobody was doing anything. 

It wasn’t until people started getting vaccinated and states started to see decreasing numbers. . . . where we said, “OK, we might be able to work in August, but let’s shoot for Red Rocks in June and see what happens.” And then the other thing was, Red Rocks is an outdoor show. So that was an extra bonus.

PCD: And how did it feel being back again? 
DSO: We got together in an undisclosed location 10 days prior to the Red Rocks show and it was just like a family reunion. It took us a day to hug each other and check each other out — and really hang out with each other. And then we started rehearsing for Tunes for Tots [which raises money for music instruments for middle- and high-school students] and the Red Rocks shows. And it was just full of vitality, energy —  it was like starting all over again.

I guess the awareness of what everyone had been through, we were just very fortunate that we had Red Rocks so we could go ahead and come out with a bang.

PCD: Did the energy feel different?
DSO: It felt like it was up by about five or six more notches — everybody was fresh, the excitement was there. Being able to perform and being able to hang out with your buddies with no fences, no borders, no restrictions whatsoever — because, as I said before, it was mandatory that anyone that wanted to associate with us, crew and staff, had to be vaccinated. 

[Ed. note: Even photographers for WSP shows have to show proof of vaccination.]

We have some amazing people who were taking care of us — we were like NBA players; we were all in a bubble. We just stayed in and did our best to stay our distances, 6 feet apart, in case people were not vaccinated. That was the deal, that was the game-changer for us. People in the outer outer outer circles, you know, they believe what they want to believe, and we can’t change their minds. But we knew we had to take care of ourselves and our families and our staff and our crew. So once everyone knew what the band stance was, everyone said, “Oh, well, you know, if I want to work, whether it be Widespread, Dave Matthews, Phish, it’s a good idea to get vaccinated.”

PCD: So does that mean you’re not going to get a chance to go to the beach while you’re in Wilmington? 
DSO: When everything settles down and people start being smart about this, maybe. But the variant is now out there. I think, come next year — which is what we’re looking forward to because we always want to look to the future — absolutely, we’ll get back to some kind of normal. And we can go to the beach.

I’ve been playing golf through all this, but every place that I play, they say, ‘Have you had your vaccine? Do you want to pair up with someone?’ You pretty much ride in your own cart. A lot of times I just forego all that and say, ‘No, I’m gonna walk nine holes,’ and that way, I’m there by myself, doing my own thing.

PCD: So you played a lot of golf during Covid?
DSO: It saved my life. Because I was going crazy.

For me, I didn’t think the pandemic would last as long as it did. I had high hopes. But then I realized after about four months, this is going to last a little bit longer. So I had to get into a routine of doing my daily rituals, just so that the day goes by quickly, or else I would be going crazy bananas.

PCD: Did you expect back in 1986 Widespread Panic would last 35 years?
DSO: Hell yeah.

PCD: Does that mean we get another 35?
DSO: I say this to everyone: We’ll take this as long as you guys, our family, our friends, put up with it. 

Upon their arrival to Wilmington, Widespread Panic is continuing its “Feeding People through Music” program, which hosts food drives in cities the band tours through. It has contributed $211,000 and 42,000 pounds of food to go back into communities across the country. The Wilmington fundraiser will benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC. WSP aims to raise $1,000; donate here.


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