Sunny Ortiz of Widespread Panic on what’s next after 30 years

Sunny Ortiz is a founding member of Widespread Panic, and will celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary tour with a stop at the Pavilion on Thursday. Photo: Andy Tennille Sunny Ortiz is a founding member of Widespread Panic, and will celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary tour with a stop at the Pavilion on Thursday. Photo: Andy Tennille

Widespread Panic is celebrating 30 years as one of America’s preeminent party bands. Holding the record for sold-out performances at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre (48) and selling more than 3 million albums, the well-oiled machine comes to the nTelos Wireless Pavilion on April 28.

Texas-born Sunny Ortiz has been WSP’s percussionist since the band’s genesis in Athens, Georgia. He talked with C-VILLE Weekly about the importance of family, early gigs in Virginia and the rumor that WSP would end its continuous touring schedule.

C-VILLE Weekly: How far back does WSP go in playing Virginia?

Sunny Ortiz: I remember playing at The Boathouse [the now-defunct rock club in Norfolk]. And [we’d] see many a minor league or a AAA team right there, and we would go to Harbor Park and do sound check and then go back to the game, and then go back and do the show…back in the days.

The decision to stop touring would be a momentous one. Describe what it means to you, and how Widespread came to that decision?

Well, I think you almost have to read in between the lines, you know. We really didn’t say, or at least we really didn’t come to a decision as far as [to] stop touring. I think what the verbiage should have said was that we’re going to do a smaller amount of shows than we are doing this year.

I think that with all of the traffic, all of the other entertainment, all the other awesome acts that are available, you know, I think people are starting to…pick and choose as to how they’re going to spend their weekends, how they’re going to spend their so-called entertainment budget.

This year, 2016, I think we wanted to play a lot more venues because it is our 30-year anniversary, [then] taking less shows next year. So for us to say that we’re going to not tour. …I think we need to expand on that and say, “Yeah, we’ve got to tour. We have to sustain ourselves.” It’s what we’ve been doing for the past 30 years is touring.

One or two sources I was looking at phrased it that way, that this was the last year of your touring. I’m glad you clarified that.

You know, it’s been the word the past two days. You can’t believe how many texts I’ve received going like, “Is it true?” And a lot of people were devastated.

It sounds like you’re all holding up physically…to consider you guys out there putting on the kind of performances that you do night after night, that’s great.

Well, again, we’re very fortunate. We’ve been at it for so long that we know our bodies—and we listen to our bodies, and we listen to our minds, just that whole interaction. We know when it’s starting to come to a point where we need to recharge our batteries…lead a normal life, go to our kids’ recitals, birthday parties, anniversaries, Thanksgiving dinners, so on and so forth.

Music to us is—I’m not going to say it’s a hobby, but it’s something that runs parallel to our personal and private lives, you know. It’s a big factor.

The music entity is kind of like a second home to us because when we’re out here on the road we’re totally focused on the music and the camaraderie that we have amongst each other, plus the 30 other personnel that travel with us. It’s a whole different lifestyle, and then you get home and you realize, oh, this is where it all begins, right here.

So we feel very blessed that we have families that are supportive and understand what we do night-after-night is the livelihood of that six-headed monster.

I know you have some good friends joining you on the tour such as Jason Isbell. Is anybody joining you for the Charlottesville gig?

Gee whiz, you know, that’s a good question. I wish I had a great answer. In Charlottesville, I mean who knows who might show up to our shows.

Like last night, we’re over here in Suwannee, outside Live Oak, Florida, and we had Warren Haynes come in and sit with us. We’re doing another night here at the Suwannee festival, and I think Gregg Allman plays before us, so you just never know. That door’s always open to artists, especially in the Charlottesville area.

Bruce Hornsby is not real far away in Williamsburg. I know he winds up joining bands.

Yeah. He’s played with us a couple of times.

What are your passions?

[We] go down to [our] manholes and just play music.

–Ron Wray

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