Widespread Panic has made Memphis a regular tour stop since the band got together. According to the Panic resource “Everyday Companion Online,” their first official show in the Bluff City was in April, 1989. Since then, they’ve seen local crowds swell from a couple of hundred to thousands. After 30-plus years of touring, WSP recently made a conscious decision to cut back their schedule, to “pass the baton” to a younger collection of musicians looking to expand their careers.
WSP returns to Memphis to headline Mempho Music Fest on October 1 and 2, and will hit the road for several multi-night residencies after that. Slideandbanjo.com’s Marty Halpern caught up with Panic percussionist Domingo “Sunny“ Ortiz to discuss the band’s past, present, and future.
Slideandbanjo: You moved from to Austin to Athens in the 80s, despite Austin being one of the hottest music scenes at the time. Your friend owned Athens’s Uptown Lounge and hounded you for years to move. You almost instantly sit in with a very green WSP when you get to Georgia, and the rest was history.
Sunny Ortiz: I wasn’t anticipating the awesome sound I heard from Panic that Monday night. I was like this is some avante garde stuff that I thought was creative and I could fit in. We connected at that point and could not disconnect. When they got their first record deal with Landslide, they invited me to join the production. We were making the best of it and having a great time. As more gigs started to evolve, they made me a full-time member of the band.
S&B: With the band in its infancy, what were times like in the 80s?
Sunny: With the exception of Athens and a few small towns in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, no one really knew who we were. I say Tennessee because (original drummer) Todd Nance was from Chattanooga. We’d do a little circuit – Athens, Charlotte, Hilton Head – then we’d scoot to Tuscaloosa.
S&B: What are your early memories of playing in Memphis?
Sunny: Memphis was a great stop because we would always eat some killer barbeque. So, we took any jobs we could in Memphis. We played this club, for the life of me I can’t remember.
S&B: Was it the Antenna Club?
Sunny: The Antenna Club. That’s it. Oh my. So many good memories. I remember the Antenna Club was the one that put the nail in the coffin for our song “Coconut.“ We had been playing “Coconut“ every night for as long as I can remember. One day we said we have to put this song to rest. We played it every night. There was a span of three years where JB, Dave, and I would not even bring that up when we were doing the setlist. At that point, if we did that one more time, we might never do it again. So, we put it to rest it in a time capsule and said ‘OK, we’ll open this can of worms when we’re ready for it.‘ Right now, we’re sick of it.
(editor note: The band did not play Coconut for 372 shows after that)
S&B: This is crazy. That’s always been one of my favorite songs. I love the line ‘smells like ladies lying in the sun.‘ You won’t believe this, but I was at that show, and my next question was to bring up that you haven’t played Coconut in Memphis for over 30 years.
Sunny: That is a great song. You’ve been chasing it. All I can say is in October you have two chances. Didn’t we play that at Mud Island a couple of times?
S&B: No, I went to Everyday Companion Online and checked.
Sunny: What about that place on the outskirts of Memphis.
S&B: Snowden Grove. I checked and you haven’t played it there either.
Sunny: I’ll have to bring that up when we reconvene for the shows. That may stir up some controversy and we may have to look for ourselves. I remember there was a donut shop or grocery store near the Antenna we would always go. Back then, we were trying to make it gig by gig.
S&B: One thing this band is known for are sit-ins. I can’t think of a band that has been more gracious to letting musicians share the stage with them.
Sunny: Every person that has sat in with us has had a musical connection. We are so appreciative of the musicians who say yes and then take time to do a song or two with us. Having them join us on stage is so powerful. For them to bless us with their presence on the stage while we’re performing is the icing on the cake.
S&B: You’ve had some incredible musicians sit in with you over the years in Memphis.
Sunny: We get excited by the sit-ins around Memphis. I remember Mavis Staples sitting in. Bobby Bland has opened up for us in Memphis. That excites us to the umpteenth degree because those are legends to us. The North Mississippi Allstars have played a lot. We can’t ignore that because it’s like blood in our veins.
S&B: There was a young kid many years ago who used to sit in with you quite a bit – Derek Trucks. I remember he (and Yonrico Scott) sat in one night at the Mid South Coliseum and was on fire. When the dust settled, a sarcastic JB uttered “Yep, those guys got a lot of potential.”
Sunny: I first saw Derek when he was 13. I had seen a young Stevie Ray Vaughan at age 9 and his brother Jimmy, who was 6 years older, a lot when I lived in Austin. Seeing those two at a dump in Waco I was blown away by the magic Stevie Ray had. When I first saw Derek, I was like, ‘it’s over. This guy is something special.‘ Now we have his brother Duane playing with us. It was like the snake came around and bit me twice.
S&B: Speaking of sit ins. There’s a new guy “with potential” – Billy Strings. He plays before you at Mempho on Friday night.
Sunny: We did an acoustic show in Nashville before Covid and he was gracious enough to accept our invitation. He came up and did a couple of songs. So, we’ve definitely connected and we’re aware he plays before us.
S&B: Another area of distinction for the band is its charity and philanthropy efforts. From Tunes for Tots to food drives and many others, there’s a continued pattern of helping those who need it.
Sunny: We owe that to our fans because they are the ones who keep that wheel rolling. Our personal charity is Tunes for Tots. Back when Katrina hit, we had a lot of friends and musicians from New Orleans in need. When Katrina hit, we were playing a festival in Colorado. Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Galactic were there. You could see the sadness on their faces, because they knew they may be returning to a place where their house used to be. After that, we got involved in the Panic food drives. Fans would drop off food as they entered the shows. Eventually we were getting so much food at the arenas there weren’t enough people to take it to the food shelters and we had to slow that down.
S&B: The fans have definitely been super supportive since the beginning.
Sunny: There’s no doubt there’s a unique back and forth between the band and it’s fans. Our fans, to me and the rest of the boys, are a special entity…an extension of the music we try to project. They’re the next part of the puzzle that makes the picture perfect.
S&B: While there have been numerous high points for the band, unfortunately there’s been a couple of big losses. Michael Houser, the founding guitarist, lost a battle with pancreatic cancer in 2002 and former drummer Todd Nance passed in 2020?
Sunny: With Mikey, we lost a brother and a friend, and it was a turning point in our travels across the universe. We were forced to meet the challenge, grow up, and move on. It’s the same feelings for Todd. Mikey brought Todd into the band. Both are from Tennessee. I’ll never forget sitting in hotel rooms or busses. Those two strong individuals connecting many mornings, afternoons, and nights together. People forget Mikey brought Todd into the music scene. To be without that is sad. We want to honor that, respect that, and move on.
S&B: You guys made it known pre-Covid that after 30 plus years on the road you were going to deservingly slow things down a bit. The timing between that and Covid hitting is remarkable.
Sunny: Oh yeah. Our very dearest friends were calling us slackers (laughs). To be honest, there’s just a huge number of talented entertainers that are taking huge steps in their careers. We felt, why compete? Why get in a place where our best friends are playing in the same town as us? Then the fans have to decide “Do I go hear Derek Trucks or Widespread Panic or the North Mississippi Allstars?“ Because we were just like these bands starting out in the 80s, being out 200-plus dates a year. We wanted to do just what we needed to do to survive, and let everyone else do what they want to do. We don’t want to burn ourselves and our fans out.
S&B: Lots of musicians had to make cuts to staff and others because of the Covid pandemic. That’s something Widespread Panic did not do. Why?
Sunny: The six of us know we have responsibilities and we all take pride in meeting those. We have to do the right thing. We do things that we try to know is good for Widespread Panic. We don’t do the corporate stuff. We tried to do the MTV stuff in the early years with Capricorn, but we weren’t going to conform to anybody’s wishes unless it was our idea. Capricorn would insist on being there when we recorded and we said no. It’s a closed session we don’t want executives or anyone taking videos. If it doesn’t happen our way, it doesn’t happen. It has to go through the six of us.
S&B: Taking that approach in the mid-80s when the other hot Athens bands R.E.M. and the B52’s were taking the video/corporate approach was quite a risk. Is there one thing that solidified the band enough to make this choice?
Sunny: What moved us was people were still coming to hear us. That’s what mattered to us. I think it also mattered to the bars, amphitheaters, and venues we played. They didn’t care how many hits we had or MTV videos. They were only concerned if people showed up for the shows.
When we were trying to click as a band, people were doing tapings of live shows. The fans made it happen, but Capricorn hated it because they thought it hurt record sales. Distribution was key. Somehow, our Monday night show in Athens in 1987 would get all the way to the west coast. Between Athens and California, the tapes got passed along and copies made. Then the tapes would get to Texas and that person made copies and sent it to New Mexico. That was our form of distribution. Even in 2021, we know our fans are always there and that goes a long way with us
S&B: Especially if you look at the technology during the late 80s and early 90s. Today, a show is available in high definition audio and video instantly after the concert. Back then it was literally a cassette tape and snail mail.
Sunny: Yep, the fans are the ones that made it happen. We connected that way. We can connect on stage and that’s the best part of the day for us. Anyone in the band would tell you that. For us to connect to the fans on a nightly basis, it’s like ice cream: sweeter than sweet.
S&B: Now that the world is slowly starting to open, it must feel great to be able to get out and play again. You’ll headline the Mempho Fest at the beginning of October. What are your thoughts on Memphis and beyond?
Sunny: We’re excited. As you know, Memphis has always been one of our favorite towns. We certainly have missed it. We’ve been thinking about how much we missed being able to play live together. We’ve missed the interaction between our crew, staff, and fans. We love playing Memphis. The pandemic has thrown us a curve ball so we have to be positive, manage ourselves better to where we want to do what needs to be done so we can get back to doing what we have a passion for.
S&B: Aside from the near death of Coconut at the Antenna Club, any other memories of Memphis stick out?
Sunny: Eating great barbeque and fried chicken. Memphis is right there on the Mississippi River. When you play Mud Island you can see the great river out there doing its thing. I remember in the early years looking out at Mud Island and seeing the Mississippi and feeling that energy. It was like the river was talking to you. Where the river ends up in New Orleans is another awesome town with amazing food, and the fans are so resilient about what they’ve been through and what they’re going through.