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Published: 2008/10/17
by Josh Stack

Feeding People Through Music: Widespread Panic Fans Leave Their Mark


I was working in downtown Atlanta at a corporate law firm, 1 year removed from receiving my diploma from the Dalai Lama at Emory University. On that day, he implored each of us matriculating into society to invest ourselves in our planet; the tired old clichf making the world a better place. However, emanating from his holiness, the clichesonated in an altogether more powerful manner. He intimated that it was our duty, as intelligent, capable, and resourceful young people to do so.

Roughly 400 days later, I still had yet to discover how it was that I was going to carry out the wishes of the man who gave my commencement address and thus launched me, full bore, into “real life.” But, everyday I saw that the world needed fixing. On my way into work, during my lunch break, and leaving work, people asking for food, spare change, or hope would approach, some with drug addled eyes, other with desperation and hunger in their faces. Occasionally, a detour into McDonalds with one of these lost souls would suffice. Other times, it was simply to part with what cash I had, and continue on, helplessly wondering how much good that actually did that fella and if it was only soothing me and my own conscience.

It got to the point where purchasing 200 sandwiches and walking downtown handing them out seemed the only course of action. But, I didn’t do that.

Panic Fans for Food emerged from the brains of myself and girlfriend at the time, Jennifer Jones. She endured my whining about a lack of fulfillment at my current job and eventually helped to formulate a plan.

1) figure out where there are people already gathering
2) figure out how to reach the people ahead of time
3) tug the heart strings.

Very simple formula. Answers:

1) I was going to lots of Panic shows and so were lots of other people
2) The Widespread Panic internet community was blossoming and provided adequate avenues for mass communication.
3) As fans, we wanted to portray ourselves as compassionate people and to leave our mark in an entirely different way than just drug arrests and trashed parking lots in cities where we saw our favorite band.

Then the band said “no.”

I proposed to them to host food drives at their Oak Mountain dates September 24-25, 1999. The band has a policy of not allowing any causes under the tent of their shows. You open those floodgates and soon enough, everybody with a cause and a bleeding heart will want a piece of your pie.

Good logic. But, it was disappointing for sure.

Those were excellent shows, where the band debuted material showcasing their new album, Till the Medicine Takes, which remains my favorite panic record.

09/24/99 Oak Mountain Amphitheatre, Pelham, AL 1: Porch Song > One Arm Steve > Makes Sense To Me, Blue Indian > Diner > Sleeping Man, Big Wooly Mammoth, Jack, Radio Child

2: All Time Low > Disco, Hatfield > Dyin’ Man* > Red Hot Mama* > Drums* > Heaven > Love Tractor E: Pusherman > Ain’t Life Grand * with Colin Butler on turntables, Robert Barnett on drums
[Soundcheck: ‘Drums’, ‘Sometimes’, ‘Jam’, ‘Cream Puff War’]

09/25/99 Oak Mountain Amphitheatre, Pelham, AL 1: Surprise Valley > Bear’s Gone Fishin’ > C. Brown, Wondering > The Waker, Stop-Go > Tall Boy > Chilly Water

2: Greta > Walkin’ (For Your Love), Little Lilly > Ride Me High > Little Lilly > Drums* > Proving Ground** > North** > Proving Ground** > Climb To Safety** E: Fishwater > Sometimes > Henry Parsons Died * with Brad Rosen on drums/percussion

  • with Jerry Joseph on guitar/vocals

[First ‘North’; ‘Under Pressure’ tease after ‘Stop-Go’; ‘Cars’ jam after ‘Greta’]

Proving Ground>North>Proving Ground with Jerry Joseph registered a 6.0 on the epic scale and moved me to ignite my efforts anew.

Find out how tall you are by standing in the middle of a river (Provin Ground)
I go north, to find out what I’m worth, just how big I am. (North)

I returned from Pelham with fresh inspiration and dedication to make this idea work. Finding a quote from Dave Schools about certain bands no longer permitted to play some choice venues because of their fans’ behavior gave me the perfect close to my pitch letter. Dave Schools responded to me in an email saying, “What a perfect fit! We have so many songs about food.” While it may not seem like much, that one line email stoked the fires and got us off the ground in a hurry.

The first drive was October 30th, 1999 at UNO Lakefront Arena, New Orleans, Louisiana.

The fans responded enthusiastically and soon enough, PF3 became part of the “scene.” The press releases I submitted were getting picked up in cities across the country while fans hunted us down requesting to help in any way they could.

April 27th, 2001, Huntsville, Alabama: “Widespread Panic: Anything But.”

Was the cover of the Huntsville Times on Saturday April 28th, 2001. PF3, in particular the fans, weathered another storm of ridicule and rose above it to donate more than half a ton of food and $1,000 to a local battered woman’s shelter. In the wake of being refused by all the major non-profits in town because of the ill-repute of the “scene,” there were no arrests, no overdoses, and nothing but positive vibes emanating from the Von Braun Civic Center and surrounding areas.

For weeks leading up to the show, PF3 attempted to atone for the previous year’s debacle in Huntsville where dozens of arrests and even a few overdoses following the show dominated the headlines in Huntsville. When seeking out a beneficiary, (typically a food bank that is a member Feeding America-The Nation’s Food Bank Network), we were rebuffed time and again by local charities. Scheduling the Panic show the same weekend as the annual, family-friendly, Panoply festival irked local officials, giving them pause about supporting and accepting contrition from Panic Fans.

We called the media.

On the day of the show, print, radio, and TV showed up to interview PF3 volunteers about the event. I can’t help but think that the fans knew of the urgent need to be on their best behavior at this event. It went off without a hitch; Widespread Panic, Anything But.

Von Braun Civic Center, April 27th, 2001

1: Disco > Wondering > Greta > Do What You Like > Stop Breakin’ Down Blues, I’m Not Alone > Ride Me High > You Got Yours > Thought Sausage

2: Give > Dyin’ Man, Jack > Surprise Valley > Papa’s Home > Jam > Drums > Tie Your Shoes > Papa’s Home, Pickin’ Up The Pieces > Henry Parsons Died

E: Dream Song, Chunk Of Coal

“Do right/Use your head/Everybody/Must be fed/Get together/Break some bread
Yes, together/That’s what I said.” Do What You Like, Traffic

“it’s your favorite charity” Give

“Do What You Like,” a rare treat indeed, played maybe once a year, if that.

“Where There is Love, There is Hope.”

2001 continued with epic shows that many consider to be some of the best in the band’s history. The cause soldiered on, gaining momentum and recognition with the fans. Mikey’s new song, “This Part of Town” gave us a mantra and a theme song, with images of giving a beggar a dollar and wondering how to improve the world and where your compassion fits into the chaos of existence. Michael Houser summed it up nicely with his closing lyrics of “where there is love, there is hope.”

2002 settled in on us in a cold and dark fashion, just as most new years arrive in January and February. Despite the seasonal doldrums, hope and aspirations for the coming year and all the opportunity it afforded permeated all of our minds.

That hope took a hit shortly after the New Year. Rumors circulated starting in February that Michael Houser had contracted a form of terminal cancer. Shortly before the start of Spring Tour, these rumors bore fruit bitter, sour and altogether unpleasant to consume. But fruit nonetheless, and the coming sunshine renewed our vigor to believe in the impossible.

Inspiration arrived with the Spring, new growth, new hope, and the innocence and enthusiasm of youth, and PF3 gained a new ally in Chris Cowan.

Chris Cowan, a teacher at Laurel Ridge Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia, taught his 3rd grade class a lesson in compassion using “This Part of Town” as an example. His devotion to teaching his kids real-life lessons and his love for Widespread Panic’s music stirred him to new creative heights. He taught his students the lyrics of the song and what the lyrics meant. Then he called me.

When Chris learned about Michael Houser’s cancer, he felt it was critical for the band and Mikey to realize the impact they had on his personal and professional growth. Says Cowan, “the music and the people I met along my travels inspired me to help those less fortunate by teaching the lessons of compassion and generosity to a wonderfully impressionable group of young children.” Educating the kids, raising hunger awareness, and combining these with the lyrics of "This Part of Town" was a natural fit. When the day was over, the lesson then became inspiration for others to get involved and make a difference at shows and in their own communities.

He asked if my buddy, Eric Martinez (now of Bloodkin) and I would mind coming out to his school and playing accompaniment on “This Part of Town” (no small task, mind you, as some Mikey tunes exist in a realm of musical abstraction) while his students sang along. He invited the entire school, the kids’ parents, and friends to take part in this event.

Words barely touch on the incredible sights and sounds from that day. 3rd graders decked out in panic lot t-shirts dangling to their knees, singing their hearts out to a song that they just recently learned. Not only that, but they held their own food drive and collected 350 lbs of food that was donated at the start of the tour in Raleigh. This watershed moment truly proved to me that the spark can be lit in any number of ways. From fans asking to volunteer, to them thanking us for giving the opportunity to give, to them wondering how they can help when Panic is not on tour, to spreading the cause to young students, planting in them the lesson in compassion and the importance to leave the world a better place.

The cause had arrived and seemed to have sunk in.

The Jammy

On August 10th, 2002, Michael Nathan Houser succumbed to pancreatic cancer. His lingering lead helped sketch the landscape and the background of our youth, many of us coming of age with his meandering intensity as we intensely meandered through time. My first show was in 1994 and I was 19 years old. At 27, I had yet to figure it out, but was grateful for the life experiences that seeing this band provided.

The band continued on and so did the food drives. Two months later, long time PF3 volunteer and my right hand man, Chip Schramm and I found ourselves on stage at the Roseland Ballroom being handed a Jammy from John Popper. The Mimi Fishman Community Service Award represented only 3 years of hard work, but recognized that a movement had begun. “Feeding People Through Music” meant something to a lot of people. After spending hours considering my acceptance speech, I finally decided at the podium to recite the first verse and chorus to “This Part of Town”and dedicated the award to the memory of Michael Houser.
I was walking, the other day, head down. When I met a man, who had his hand out. So I gave him, gave him a dollar. And as I walked away, I heard him call out, “Tell me brother, can you see the sun, where you’re standing now? I’ve been up and I’ve been down, but I’ve never been to thisPart of Town.

The Jammy put the cause on the map, literally. People all over the country were talking about it. The band and management, who had heretofore kept their distance, took notice and thanked us profusely for all of our hard work. “Josh and the rest of his volunteers’ dedication to PFFF was immense. They cared deeply about PFFF’s success and its representation of Widespread Panic fans,” said longtime Panic employee, Mary Armstrong-Dugas. Current Brown Cat, Inc. office manager, Ellie MacKnight expands on Dugas’ remark by saying that “the band could’ve championed the cause early on and increased the yield, but that would not have meant as much as the fans doing it all themselves and creating a movement, which is exactly what happened; people believed a lot more because they had ownership of the cause.”

Time flew after the Jammy. The award propelled the cause to a new level of recognition among the fans. Soon enough, the mere sight of the “Panic Fans for Food” banner made people stop in their tracks to give. The food drive booth became a meeting point for fans before the show and a rallying cry for all of us to make a differencebecause we can. Because we can afford a $40 ticket to the show and will undoubtedly purchase a few $6 beers and maybe even a $10 liquor drink. After all, Panic fans broke the liquor sales record at Radio City Music Hall the first night they ever played there, April 2005. The record would’ve soared ever higher, but $1700 of Panic fans’ money was re-directed to the Food Bank of New York City.

The Band Steps In

9 years, 3 guitarists, and dozens of food drives later, times changed dramatically for PF3. The entire time PF3 was in operation, I was working full time at another job; jobs that failed to fill my passion. However, in February of 2008, I received a job offer from MANNA FoodBank in Asheville, North Carolina, that I could absolutely not refuse. The job of Communications and Marketing Coordinator at MANNA offered me the chance to receive compensation to pursue a cause I’d been pursuing for many years already. And honestly, I was suffering from burnout. Attending concerts was work and often times not easy work. But, I had an itch that needed scratchin’ so I kept it up.

I lucked outmy ex-fiancee forwarded me a job posting that was perfect, and I barely got my resume in under the gun. When I told them everything I knew about public relations and marketing came from Panic tour, there was an audible gasp in the room. Results are results, however, and that seemed to be enough for them.

Soon enough, I knew that I had to give up that which had fueled my passion for change and served my social conscience for 8 years. Because of the work I had done for many years, I had received enough on the job training to attain my dream job. However, it was a bittersweet departure. Years of food drives, meeting people, getting my hands dirty trying to stir the pot and make a difference flooded over me as I confronted this somewhat grim reality. When attached to something so closely for so long, letting go hurts.

Then I wrote a letter to John Bell. I told him of how, unexpectedly, I had been hired to provide the same exposure for the cause in 16 counties in Western North Carolina. I was expected to be the voice and the message to inspire the citizens of Asheville and the surrounding counties to act on behalf of 115,000 of their neighbors in need who seek emergency food assistance. That daunting task could not be split with the demands of running PF3.

“For ten years, the fans took it upon themselves to make a difference,” says Bell. “When Josh got in touch with us about his new position, we thought it fitting to continue the work as best we could, and we’re happy to do so.” Bell continues to emphasize that times are tough all over the country and if the fans want to help out, the band and their management are happy to provide that vehicle. Widespread Panic has been known for their charity work through the years, most recently embracing the “Make It Right” Foundation in New Orleans. They have also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for many other charities and have been content to keep those commendable efforts under the radar.

The Other Side of the Coin

You should all know that the lessons of Panic Fans for Food have been implemented with wild success at MANNA FoodBank. This past July, we held our very first food drive using the model developed from years of food drives on Panic tour. In a single day, 31,000 lbs of food was collected along with $41,000! It was a huge success. But, sadly, the collected food and money was distributed throughout the region within 2 weeks. MANNA was also voted BEST DO-GOODER in Western North Carolina by a readers’ poll conducted in a local publication, Mountain Express.

My friends, the shifting economic landscape in America has ballooned the need to a staggeringly frightening level. Across the country, Feeding America The Nation’s Food Bank Network estimates that need has risen upwards of 20%. Spikes in food and fuel costs, 487,000 people applying for unemployment benefits, wage stagnation, and rampant foreclosures have pushed many vulnerable populations to the brink. We all are bearing witness to massive and dramatic changes across the board in America; changes that affect each and every one of us.

However, we can do something about that change. Each of you can be the difference. If you are going to Panic shows in Atlanta or Charleston, you will have an opportunity to improve the lives of those that struggle with hunger in those cities.

Imagine if just half of the people attending these shows, let’s just say 10,000 people, all brought 5 cans of food with them. That would be roughly 52,000 lbs of food!!

It’s up to us, now. We can afford to divert a bit of our disposable income so that kids can have enough to eat so that they’re not distracted when they’re trying to learn.

Food banks need us. A lot of the typical food sources are drying up forcing us to search for new ways to stock the shelves. The need is outpacing our capacity to service it, my friends.

This is a story of a small idea that an entire population of fans latched onto and grew into a successful effort to leave the world better than they found it. Whether it was Terri Messenger matching donations or Warren Cardinal hosting and designing the website or John Bell stepping in to keep the movement going, everyone lent a hand. But, the story does not end here.

Hunger has a cure. Be the cure in your community and help to feed people through music.

Joshua Kellogg Stack

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