Widespread Panic celebrates 30 years

A talk with longtime Panic drummer Domingo 'Sunny' Ortiz

WIDESPREAD PANIC hardly need an introduction in their home state of Georgia.

The Athens road warriors are celebrating 30 years of success in 2016: they’re heading back down south, they have a new album, perhaps one of their best yet, Street Dogs, released in September 2015, they’ve still got sun on their shoulders from the annual Panic en la Playa, an all-inclusive vacation getaway complete with four Panic shows, special guests, and relaxation and at Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya.

After all these years, loyal fans still come out in droves for Panic’s one-of-a-kind blend of Southern Rock, jam music, and honest-to-goodness rock ‘n’ roll.

Longtime Panic drummer Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz is ready to be back in the Hostess City so he can sip “the sweetest tea around,” get in a few rounds of golf over at the Westin’s range, and see the generations of “Spreadheads” that keep the music alive.

So looks like y’all are in Missouri today, is that right?

Yep! St. Louis, the gateway to the south on the mighty Mississippi. It’s a beautiful day—a little windy, beautiful weather.

You just returned from Panic en la Playa a few weeks ago—that looks like an absolute blast.

It’s an awesome time! Great weather, great venue. I recommend taking the trip at least one time. It’s fun: the keywords are ‘all-inclusive.’ Just like the word ‘free,’ big words go a long way! It’s a typical resort on the gulf with a friendly staff, the amenities were great at Hard Rock—they know what they’re doing down there.

2016 is Panic’s 30th anniversary. Is it hard to believe it’s been that long?

Sure doesn’t seem like it. To be honest with you, I think for the majority of us, 25 years was the stellar point. 30 years is awesome, I’m not complaining! But when you reach that 25-year mark, that was a big deal for us, only because of our predecessors in rock ‘n’ roll and how long some of these guys have been together. I‘m not going say there’s a light at end of tunnel at 30, but it’s like a fine cake that’s not ready to come out of the oven yet—it’s still in the process.

So what’s the secret to successfully touring and playing with the same folks for that long?

A big part is the creativity and the respect we have for all of us and the desire and passion for the music. I think those are key elements. Once you get on the road, you forget about little incidentals: your favorite meals, your favorite bed pillow, your routine you go through when you are at home.

There is all that’s involved in touring, but you gotta be more susceptible to being able to change. Night after night, day after day, your routine changes, your sleeping pattern definitely does change.

I think giving everybody their space, giving everyone, I guess, the opportunity to express themselves, be it musically or verbally, I think is a big key, you know? And when it’s time for the tour to end, or time for us to take a week or two off, we all kind of go our own ways, recharge our batteries and come back.

After all this time playing together, is there like a collective consciousness that happens between all of you when you play live now?

That’s what keeps it lively! In answer to previous question: when you’re on the bus and you’re traveling from venue to venue you talk about whatever the case may be, it’s always been enriching and enlightening, having different interests and goals about anything: live recordings, or what your favorite restaurant was in previous town, what your buddies are texting you about. It’s just normal routine.

I think the music stands along as another entity; we spend more time with our personal things than we do the four hours we’re performing on stage. It’s unique, but yet it’s humbling, because you know, to be out here for thirty years, we couldn’t have done it without the support of our hands and the people who believe in the music.

You recorded your last album, Street Dogs, up at Echo Mountain in Asheville. I've heard nothing but fantastic stuff about that place. I understand y'all found it to be your most positive recording experience yet.

Echo Mountain is an awesome place! The staff there is great, and Asheville is a beautiful town. We were fortunate to have John Keane help us produce it, 'manning the buttons,' so to speak. And after—Lord, I forget how many—15, 16, 18, you look at each product as a new venue, because you come out, and it's all about performance.

We had this product, this album, this CD, in the can for about a full year before we actually recorded the live sessions. But you know, we’ve been very fortunate to where people have believed in us to where they felt like it was time for us to put out a product, so they were more than gracious to help us along in that whole process, and it is a process—it doesn’t just drop on you over night.

Street Dogs is awesome. Some of my favorite ones are Dirty [Side Down]...Ain’t Life Grand is a good one. The most favorite of our fans though, is our first, Space Wrangler.

Why do you think that is?

It was the first one, the first product we distributed back in ’88. I think everyone likes to grab ahold of that one and see how we’ve progressed over the years. I think there’s a progression. I believe that it’s just like anything else: babies start out and mature, and you see it develop into the person it is.

Or, I should say, the monster, as it is now. [Laughs] There was a t-shirt a while ago some folks designed for us, it was a six-headed monster with all of our faces as the heads of the monster. Love those bootleggers!

You’re still living in Athens, right?

Yep! I live close to the city. Great town, great music town. We just finished two nights there when we came back from Mexico, it was awesome.

I migrated to Georgia 1986; I’m originally from Texas. We all congregated via the help of UGA, that’s how everything got snowballing.

Panic has those distinct Allman-esque, Georgia-mud moments; were you inspired by those sounds when you moved here?

When I personally moved to Athens, Georgia, in October 1986, I was already in my early 30s, whereas the boys were in their late teens and early 20s. There’s a little bit of age difference there, and to be honest with you, I was kind of fed up with the music scene.

I was living in Austin for 10 years previous to the Athens move, and I was a bit tired of the scene, and I met these guys and it kind of turned things around for me, and I’m glad it did, because they were young, they were fresh, they were new to their instruments, so to speak, I could see the passion, the desire, and the drive. This is what they wanted to do. Living in Austin, Texas, it’s a huge music town. It’s kind of like a dog-eat-dog world in that music scene there—which is incredible, but it just wasn’t for me. But I stuck it out for 10 years because it was my livelihood.

I thought a change would be nice and ended up in Athens, Georgia via a close friend of mine I grew up with in Texas. He had suggested the move...that’s how I came up in this whole festival environment.

What kind of stuff were you playing in Texas?

Country-Western, reggae, Caribbean, to pop, to jazz—basically I was a [sic] hire-for-gun percussionist. It was fun; I would do sometimes three different shows a night: early jazz show, then do a matinee, then go to another club at night. It was that lifestyle for almost 10 years.

It was a whole different scene in Athens music, and that had a major influence: that Allman Brothers, 38 Special, Lynyrd Skynyrd kind of vibe. Not that we imitate any of those bands, but that was a moving factor for these boys.

In Athens, R.E.M. was hot as fire, B-52s, you had other bands, like Drivin ‘N’ Cryin...

Yeah, you moved right in the defining moment of Athens music. That’s awesome.

There was a lot of good music coming up that was the vitality of that town at the time, just like how Austin was in the ‘70s, as is the Bay Area in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I just happen to fall into it at the right time in Athens and, you know, like I said, hooked up with these boys, and we’re still putting miles on the bus.

What are you looking forward to in 2016?

A lot more shows! The venues have progressed, the fans have developed into their own little circles. We’re looking at a third generation of Panic followers—‘Spreadheads,’ as they like to be called. It’s still as fun for us as it is for the fans to come out. There’s some excitement in the air for both entities, and that’s what keeps everything so vibrant, as well.

And the fans and band members really don't know what to expect once the evening starts! People still plan their vacation time to come to our shows, so that's unique in itself.


About The Author

Anna Chandler

Connect Savannah Former Arts & Entertainment Editor Anna Chandler started writing about music after growing hoarse from talking about it nonstop. Born in Tennessee and raised in South Carolina, she has been a proud Savannahian for 8 years. She sings & plays guitar & accordion in COEDS and Lovely Locks.
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