Happy Space

Making the transformation from fan to band member, Jojo Hermannís spot as Widespread Panicís keyboard player is a dream gig

by Lee Abraham

Life is just ducky in Jojo Hermannís world. The keyboard player for Widespread Panic is a happy man. Heís excited about the bandís new album, "íTil the Medicine Takes," and psyched for this summerís tour which includes a European leg cruising through Amersterdam, parts of Germany and Paris.

"We love it there," says Hermann. "Weíve been going over to Europe the past few years and it keeps getting better for us every time we go back." Hermann is also tickled by the number of times theyíll be playing at various House of Blues venues around the country this summer. "They treat us right, so we just keep coming back. There's a House of Blues in Myrtle Beach and we play there every year, we usually spend about four days on the beach at that one. There's one in Orlando, we're doing one in LA, Vegas, I wish they'd open one up in Hawaii and then we'll go there too!"

Not only are there plenty of cool gigs to play, the band is unaffected by music industry pressure to produce a hit record, a perenial burr in the saddle of most bands that reach national stature through relentless touring. Their label, Capricorn Records hasnít put the bottom line in front of the bandís creativity. That approach has brought out the best in everybody. "We're just very, very fortunate that we're not dependent on this big industry out there, "says Hermann. "We can write about something that we want to write about and not really worry what radio or industry might think. It's a great situation, a dream gig in a way."

A major part of the dream gig is how well the band members work together. They truly enjoy each otherís company. Another is the continual evolution of Widespreadís sound and collective creativity. "It's always been left wide open for anybody to come in as far as song writing goes. But it has changed... it's opened up even more. The freedom now is such that everybody's kind of stepping in and taking advantage of that freedom." For example, Todd Nance, the bandís drummer has thrown his hat in the songwriting ring with a tune he wrote and sings on the new record. "Both a first," says Hermann, who was a Widespread fan way before he became a member.

Born in the Greenwich Village area of New York city, Hermann moved down to Mississippi in í85 when he was in his early twenties. "I just went down to visit," says Hermann, "but I was so blown away by the scene, that I never left. The first thing that hits you is just how nice everybody is." Hermann was attracted to Mississippiís blues scene, a vibrant and historically rich music community after becoming interested in the blues while playing in New York cover bands. Then came a pivotal moment: he discovered Professor Longhair, father of the New Orleans Mardi Gras.

"Someone gave me one of his records and that set me off in direction," says Hermann. "I played nothing but Professor Longhair for like five years. Thatís where it all stems from... that's my style of piano playing, the New Orleans boogie thing."

When he got down south, Hermann made the rounds as a solo act, doing piano man nightclub gigs. He also joined a band called "Beanland," which did mostly Dead covers. Beanland opened a few shows for WSP in Ď87. Thatís when he got to know the guys in the band. "I heard their record first," recalls Hermann. "I was blown away by ĎSpace Wrangler,í as I think everyone in the south was, it was a very fresh thing back then with the southern scene."

After the shows, Hermann jammed with the panic boys and the combination seemed to click. "They called me up one day after Beanland kind of broke up and asked if I wanted to go on the road." Heís been on the road ever since. Over the years, that road has passed through Vegas several times. "I think the best time I remember in Vegas was when the Dead played there," recalls Hermann. "They played a day show, it was like a hundred degrees, and we played the Huntridge Theater afterwards for a couple of nights. That was a blast!"

Comparisons to the Dead are inevitable and in some cases warranted. Both bandsí music emphasize extended improvised jams and have built followings of tie-dyed faithful through prolific tour schedules. Although there are similarities, there are differences as well. "It's not where we carry the same crowd from show to show with us, where they all travel," says Hermann. "It's not like that, but there is some of that, there are definitely some folks that do make the whole tour. In fact I've become friends with most of them." ###