For almost three decades, Widespread Panic has traversed the globe with their Southern fried take on rock ‘n’ roll. Since the early days in Athens, Ga., this icon of the jam scene has lost no momentum. The same can be said for their legion of dedicated fans, known as “Spreadheads,” who still travel far and wide to experience the band in a variety of live settings. The Azalea City has no shortage of zealous Spreadheads and many will be heading west for Widespread’s Biloxi date. With that in mind, Lagniappe could not refuse the offer of an extremely rare interview with the band’s longtime percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, who was recently recuperating from a Saturday filled with SEC football games.
SC: Through all the years, Widespread still manages to pack out venues and collect new fans. What do you think of the phenomenon that Widespread has become?
DO: Part of that phenomenon is the communication and the vibe of the fan base. After all these years, they’re still excited about the music. They’re excited about the whole issue of folks getting together. It’s like a football game. The excitement is there before the game with tailgating … waiting for the doors to be opened. They’re excited about the actual performance. Afterwards too, it segues into people talking about the show and talking to other people and how many shows they’ve been too. They talk about where they’re going next and where we’re going next. They’re planning their spring breaks and summer vacations to places where we’re playing. The phenomenon is the people themselves and how they create that environment.
SC: During your downtime, I know a lot of the guys in the band have their individual side-projects. How do you spend your downtime? Are you the one guy who takes advantage of your off-time and relaxes?
DO: You know, I got a few side-projects. I do one side-project with Isaac Bramblett, who is the son of Randall Bramblett (Bonnie Raitt, Gregg Allman). I do things that I like to do when I’m off the road. I like to work in my studio and play golf. When I first came into the project in 1986, I arrived via Austin, Texas. From 1975 to right before I moved to Georgia, I was playing with a countless amount of musicians in Austin. So, I got my fill of side-projects. When I moved to Georgia, I had no anticipation of getting into a rock ‘n’ roll band again, but once I heard the boys play, I said, “You know, this is an opportune moment.” They offered me a position, and I had really gotten my fill of playing with multiple bands. Now that we’ve been together for almost 30 years, I’m saying that I wouldn’t mind collaborating with other musicians, not necessarily going out and traveling. Nowadays, if they use a piece of my music, they will certainly give me credit. It’s just like with Widespread Panic. You have to feel good with the people that you’re up on stage with. To be honest with you, I enjoy my downtime, but I also realize that it’s good to get out and broaden your horizons, so to speak. Now that I’m in my early 60s, it doesn’t bug me to play with other musicians.
SC: You mentioned joining the band in ‘86. Widespread was born out of the legendary Athens music scene. How would you compare the scene in Athens now to back when you first joined the band?
DO: To me, there’s nothing that’s going to compare to the music scene in the mid-‘80s and early ‘90s in Athens. There’s a great amount of entertainment and bands out of Athens, but it’s just like with us. We had to broaden our horizon outside of Athens in order to sustain ourselves. That’s why we started touring as much as we did. We knew that we couldn’t sustain ourselves by hiding out here and playing the circuit scene here in Athens, because we would have worn ourselves out. Nowadays, I think the music scene here in Athens has somewhat calmed down. Now, I think everything has moved to Colorado. You have some killer bands such as Leftover Salmon and String Cheese. You’ve got Jerry Joseph still hanging out and Pretty Lights. The music scene here in Athens still lingers, but I just don’t think it’s as popular as some of the other places coming up with their hot musicians. There’s still some great music here, but as in anything, you have to get out of Athens to establish yourself.
SC: You just reissued your back catalog in vinyl. What made you guys want to use this medium for this project?
DO: You know, it’s posterity. Vinyl is something that is retro and is coming back. People are now going out and purchasing turntables and it’s something that’s unique. Not everybody can do it. We just felt that it would be nostalgic. It was the perfect time to do it, and it was something different. It’s always a democratic vote when it comes to producing and editing certain factors of it. It was kinda fun to do, and we’ll be doing it again. We’ll probably wait awhile to see what’s next to come out.
SC: Y’all must have had a really good time in the Dominican Republic last year for “Panic En La Playa,” because you’re doing it again this year with another destination performance. How would you describe this experience to those debating whether or not to go?
DO: Number one, it’s a vacation and it’s on the beach. It’s four days of beach, four days of sun, four days of listening to music not only from us. It’s all-inclusive. The food is great and the golfing is awesome. I was playing golf at every morning at 7:30 in the morning. To me, if I was looking for a vacation from the cold weather or just a vacation after the holidays, it would be the thing for me to do. Last year, we went over in March, which was kinda tough, because everybody is traveling in March for spring break. This year, we’re going in late January. It’s the time of year that the water is incredibly warm and beautiful. There are also less people in these hotels then, because it’s considered off-season.
SC: Either live or studio, when’s the next release? What can we expect from Widespread in the future?
DO: You can expect as much as we can give you. 2015 is going to be a busy year. The fans can expect us to be on top of our game. They can expect us to also play some new material. As far as the products that will come out, they’re going to have to wait and see. It all depends on what our year looks like next year, as far as when we can have some downtime to possibly get into the studio or dig into our archives and bring out some stuff that’s been sitting in the vaults for all these years.
Date: Sunday, Oct. 12, 8 p.m.
Venue: Mississippi Coast Coliseum, 2350 Beach Blvd., www.mscoastcoliseum.com
Tickets: $43-$53 through Ticketmaster