Perhaps no other guitarist could have better understood the challenges George McConnell faced during his four-year stint in Widespread Panic than the man who replaced McConnell in the lineup, Jimmy Herring.
McConnell was brought into the band during the summer of 2002 at a traumatic point in Widespread Panic's history. Guitarist Michael Houser, a founding member who's unique guitar style had been a defining element of the band's sound, had pancreatic cancer and had become too ill to continue touring with the group. In August of 2002 Hauser succumbed to his illness.
Before his death Houser had urged his bandmates to push forward. Rather than taking a beak to mourn their close friend, the group decided to continue touring and recording the CD that came out in 2003, Ball.
McConnell stepped into the lineup and by all accounts endured difficult times from fans who missed Hauser. According to a September/October 2006 Relix magazine feature, McConnell received hate mail, even death threats, and would look out to concert audiences and see derisive signs waved in his direction. McConnell quit the group after a July 30, 2006, concert in St. Louis.
The other band members then turned to Herring, who in a late-March phone interview said he first came to know the guys in Widespread Panic in 1989 while playing in Col. Bruce Hampton's Aquarium Rescue Unit.
Herring had gone on to play in the Allman Brothers Band, the Dead and the solo band formed by Dead bassist Phil Lesh.
In the Allman Brothers, Herring had been recruited soon after the departure of founding member Dickey Betts. In the Dead, Herring, of course, was filling the guitar slot left by Jerry Garcia.
"I had to step into the Allman Brothers after Dickey Betts left," Herring says. "That's impossible. You can't do that, just like you can't do what George tried to do. I mean, you can do it, but it's hard. It's hard. And there are going to be those people who don't like you."
So far, Herring said he hasn't had to deal with the kind of resentment that apparently characterized McConnell's tenure. Still, he said he's sure some Widespread Panic fans find him lacking.
"I guarantee you there are people who feel that same way about me," he says. "They love Mike. And Mike deserves to be loved that way."
The remaining members of Widespread Panic singer/guitarist John Bell, bassist Dave Schools, percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann and drummer Todd Nance apparently have long suspected that Herring would be the right man to fill the guitar vacancy. The band actually approached Herring about joining when Houser became too ill to continue touring. Herring had to reluctantly decline.
"I was working at the time with Phil Lesh," Herring says. "I really wanted to do it, but I loved what I was also doing already and also I was committed. I couldn't leave Phil in the middle of a tour. I wouldn't do that to anyone. So I couldn't do it. They totally understood."
All indications are that Herring was able to learn much of Widespread Panic's catalog quickly, and on a personal level has fit in very well with the other band members.
Further evidence of the chemistry in this latest lineup of Widespread Panic can be heard on the group's new CD, Free Somehow, which is Herring's first studio appearance with the band. As with Widespread Panic's previous album, the 2006 release Earth To America, the group went to Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas and worked with producer Terry Manning. The CD was finished with the exception of a few vocal tracks in just two weeks.
The quality of Free Somehow belies the swiftness in which it was recorded. Stylistically, the album leans a bit more toward softer material than many Widespread Panic albums. But with songs as strong as the funky but easy-going, horn-accented "Angels on High" and the epic "Her Dance Needs No Body" one of the prettiest songs the band has created that shouldn't be a problem for fans. And Free Somehow has several potent rockers, too, including "Walk on the Flood," "Boom Boom Boom" and "Up All Night," that should satisfy fans of Widespread Panic's rockier material.
Herring says he is excited to return to the road with Widespread Panic this spring and is especially looking forward to playing the newer songs on stage.
"I'm real excited about playing this music live, where it's going to get a chance to evolve," he says. "A lot of this music, the versions on the album are not the stripped-down versions. They're the highly produced, polished versions. And I think that's a really great thing. But when you're playing live, you're not going to have a horn section and you're not going to have a string section and you're not going to have the opportunity to overdub and put three guitar tracks down. You're just going to have what's live. So I'm really looking forward to that because my whole thing is about playing live anyway, and the band, obviously, their thing is about playing live."
WIDESPREAD PANIC plays U.S. Bank Arena Wednesday, April 9. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.