For three decades, the Georgia rock band Widespread Panic has belied its own name by spreading good vibes on a grand scale. The group will take the stage at Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena at Harveys on July 6.
Their fans, whose dedication and hippie-like ethos have drawn comparisons to followers of the Grateful Dead, should feel at home in the tree-surrounded venue.
Lead guitarist Jimmy Herring doesn’t love labels, but he accepts that many people find jam band to be a useful descriptor for Widespread Panic. He took a moment to address what groups deemed jam bands — from pioneers like the Dead and the Allman Brothers to more contemporary groups like Phish — have in common.
Along with enjoying a particularly exuberant fan base, he said, jam bands typically have a large catalog of original songs as well as covers from which to draw. Widespread Panic, for instance, can go as many six shows without repeating a song.
“What’s not in keeping with the label of jam band is that it implies we get up and wing it. Sometimes, we’ll go into an instrumental passage,” Herring said. “We’ll be in E minor and improvise until we’ve said what we have to say and then go back to the rest of the song. Some people love that uncertainly. They like seeing a group of people without a net.”
Herring also noted that jam bands and their aficionados tend have a wide range of musical influences.
“They love the spirit of jazz, the creative freedom it gives musicians,” he said. “You’ve got rock and blues and funk, and people are dancing — it’s a really big melting pot of different styles. I love when every song is not the same.”
Herring has been a member of Widespread Panic since 2006, taking over where George McConnell — who stepped in after lead guitarist Michael Houser died of pancreatic cancer in 2002 — left off.
Before joining Widespread Panic band mates like John Bell (vocals, rhythm guitar), John “Jojo” Hermann (organ/keyboards) and bassist Dave Schools, Herring’s career was as winding as the band’s most intricate improvisations.
Born in North Carolina, he started playing guitar at age 13. After high school, he honed his skills playing in a jazz-fusion cover band and studying at the Guitar Institute of Technology.
Growing up, Herring wasn’t into the jam scene. His youthful musical heroes included “more flamboyant” musicians, like Led Zeppelin and Jimmi Hendrix. Soon, however, he began crossing paths with musicians who cited the Dead among their primary influences.
“It was mind-blowing at first to experience the music,” Herring said of his introduction to the Dead’s eclectic and miles-long catalog. “The Grateful Dead set the table for all the other guys. They’re the prototype. They did it first.”
Dead fans with whom Herring began to mingle included bassist Oteil Burbridge, with whom he founded the jam band Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit in 1992.
In 1998, Herring co-founded the Grateful Dead cover band Jazz is Dead, known for its largely instrumental renditions of popular Dead songs laced with jazz influences. He next joined a new iteration of the Allman Brothers band, featuring Burbridge, for a summer tour in 2000.
He became further immersed in the music and history of the Grateful Dead in 2002 when he joined the Other Ones, which featured erstwhile members of the Dead Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Heart and Bill Kreutzmann. He continued to play with the band, renamed the Dead, throughout 2003 and 2004.
It wasn’t until joining Widespread Panic that the peripatetic Herring settled down with one outfit.
“It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s all I ever wanted,” Herring said. “A lot of jazz people I know, they change bands every year. In the rock and roll world, there’s an art to a band you can’t get if you replace the members every year.”
There was an adjustment period while he “learned the language of the band,” Herring said. He and his new band mates managed to find common ground, a process eased by a true sense of friendship and lots of laughter.
One of the best aspects of stepping into Widespread Panic has been inheriting and building on the group’s longstanding fan-base, Herring said. He thinks of the crowd as an intrinsic part of the band.
“They know their part in the music definitely affects the outcome,” he said. “Our fans bring an amazing amount of energy that takes the musicians to new levels — things that never would have happened if the audience wasn’t there.”
Herring also appreciates the band’s firm membership in the Atlanta, Georgia community as well as the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
Herring, who has a son who is 21 and a daughter who is 27, has lived there for 29 years now.
“Me and the people who have spent most of our time around here consider the south to be a special place. For all its warts and everything, there’s been great music,” he said, citing Southern music legends ranging from John Coltrane to Otis Redding and from James Brown to Thelonious Monk
Widespread Panic put out its 12th studio album last year, adding another release to a discography that features a remarkable 43 live albums. The band has sold 3 million copies of its records over the years.
Earlier this year, Bell and Hermann went on the record saying that while Widespread Panic will continue making music, they’ll be dialing back the touring schedule from here on out.
While age likely played a part in that decision, Herring said there’s nothing he loves better than to see great musicians continue doing what they do best.
“It’s hilarious to me. I think it’s great,” he said of classic rockers packing stadiums as senior citizens. “Take the Stones. They’ve stood the test of time. They’re an unstoppable force, making great song after great song. They still deliver. I think they should play as long as they want to.”