Panic Attack in Downtown Austin: Widespread Tribute Panic Stricken Takes Central Texas By Storm
By Joe Rossi
(second in an ongoing look at the Austin Jam Band Tribute Scene.)
Offer them what they secretly want and they, of course, immediately become panic-stricken.
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road
It’s been rather a meteoric rise for Panic Stricken, Austin’s homegrown Widespread Panic tribute. It wasn’t long ago that guitarist Richard Gober, a friend I had jammed with a few times, reached out to me to get in touch with Keith Sennikoff of DeadEye.
As well, Richard had hooked up with bassist Kenny Valentine whom he met a small yogurt shop gig I had been doing on a regular basis. Kenny had shown up to play a little bass for me and Richard showed up as well to belt out a few songs. So I feel honored to have played a role in the formation of the band.
Gober, Sennikoff and Valentine along with Michael Bahan on drums form the core of the band. John Voss recently joined the group as a percussionist, however their keyboardist, Michael Davids, has left the band to pursue other projects. No word on who will take his place at this point.
Caught up with the band at Threadgills’ outdoor stage November 21, a rather chilly night at that, for a One-Year Anniversary show that was also a food drive benefit. Turnout was a bit light but the band definitely found their groove despite the cold. The guys rocked through the tunes with accomplished, free-flowing energy. It was impossible for the crowd not to move and in fact seemed to generate a bit of warmth to offset the cold as the band trotted out song after song including “Space Wrangler,” “Ain’t Life Grand,” “The Diner” and a “Dear Mr. Fantasy” encore.
I asked Gober how long he had been a fan of Widespread. “Since 1993 as a freshman at Ole Miss,” he tells me. “My potluck room mate was from Georgia and one of the first things he asked me is if I had ever heard of “Widespread Panic.” Funny enough, I had just finished reading an article about them, Blues Traveller, Phish, and a few others doing the H.O.R.D.E tour back then. So, I guess I was ready to receive the transmission.”
It wasn’t love at first hearing though. He enjoyed the music alright, but taking in a show in Starkville, MS, he began to come around. “I really liked John Bell’s voice, and enjoyed it enough to catch my first show down in Starkville, MS (one of the only times I set foot there). I thought it was great, and had a hell of a time. At that time I was still pretty unfamiliar with the catalog but started to get it.”
“I saw one more show after that in 1994, but I’d say I was grabbed for life when they played in Oxford, MS in 1995. They were really on point here, and just flat out blew my mind. I have since seen close to 100 shows since that day (give or take a few).”
As for bassist Kenny Valentine it was the festivals like H.O.R.D.E what really got him into the band. And it was Valentine who came up with the band name, taken from a quote in Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel, On The Road.
“Widespread was always playing festivals and so I wish I could say I was a guy always going to see Widespread but it was like I am going to the festival. Widespread was always in the mix. People would get out there and dance and nobody would leave the floor.”
So what got him into Panic Stricken? “Panic Stricken has gotten into us, he said without hesitating.
Erstwhile DeadEye guitarist Keith Sennikoff offered this about playing in Panic Stricken: “I love being able to do both a Jerry/Bobby role in DeadEye and a Mikey/Jimmy role in Panic Stricken. Each band requires very different attitude and energy, although the two are obviously closely related as concerns the ability to improvise over rock tunes.”
“In Panic Stricken, however, I get to find my own voice in the huge gulf that exists between Mikey Houser and Jimmy Herring. Jimmy is flat out brilliant; he can play juicy, beautiful, lyrical ideas while setting the technical bar freakishly high. All that means I can pretty much solo however I want.”
The Grateful Dead pretty much to many is the gold standard for jam bands. As they used to say “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.”
Posed the question to Grober who would win out if Panic and Dead and Co. play Austin in the same night. “Aw crap, hopefully I would never have to make that choice. Truthfully, Panic is my favorite band … if they were in town at the same time, I’d have to go see Dead and Co. because chances are, I wouldn’t get another chance to take that one in.”
Gober sounds a lot like John Bell. “It comes pretty naturally to me,” he said. “I have a bit of a chameleon talent when it comes to singing covers. What I put a lot of effort into is trying to capture the tone properly and my thought is that it still sounds like me underneath it all.”
“And when it comes to playing Panic songs, if you can’t at least get the tone of John Bell right, I don’t really see the point in doing it. The music loses a ton without that voice. It’s still good, but the impact of the music would be seriously diminished and if I couldn’t deliver that as a singer. I would choose to cover other stuff. I enjoy the challenge of it. He does a lot of really interesting things in my opinion.”
On the Austin Jam Band scene: “I think we owe a great deal to Dead Eye, A Live One, HeartByrne, and several others, who have been at it for a lot longer than us. They have done such a good job that they have made the whole concept of a tribute act pretty cool here locally. We have also benefited a ton from their experience in blazing trails at clubs around here and elsewhere.”
“All that said, we have also put in a lot of work ourselves and have put as much effort as possible in getting the music right. We have a nucleus of guys in the band that approach it with a lot of passion and we have managed to make an emotional connection with Panic fans right from the start. Our goal has also been big time improvement every show we play. So far so good there. Every last gig show so far has been our best one overall. I also think a little pent up demand for the music has helped us out as well. I think I can speak for the rest of the guys that the reception has been awesome, but also it has been up and down. We are really thankful for the people in Austin that have started down the road with us and stuck around even when we were pretty rough at the beginning. They clearly saw something worth giving a chance. But, hell we have played for 25 people in San Antonio, so it hasn’t been a rocket ship everywhere.”
What are the long term ambitions? Touring? How much will your wife put up with? According to Gober it’s one foot after the other as they celebrate and commemorate their first year. “Right now we are content to just keep existing. We have made it a year so far, and we are already facing challenges keeping things together.”
On January 2nd and 3rd Panic Stricken will be honoring the memory of late Widespread guitarist Mickey Houser with special guests Robert O’Brian and Daniel Eaton at the One-2-One Bar on on both January 22 and 23. And as usual he Grober promises there will be no treats, so two full nights of great music. Cost is $10/door. One-To-One is located at 1509 S. Lamar Unit 600 Austin TX 78707.
Panic Stricken contact info:
Phone Number: 512-750-9193
Press Contact: Cissy Sanders Stasio
Website: Panic Stricken Website (http://www.reverbnation.com/panicstricken9)