Widespread Panic Co-Founder Dies Of Cancer

Guitarist announced he had terminal disease last month.

Michael Houser, lead guitar player and a founding member of Athens, Georgia, jam band Widespread Panic, died at his home August 10 from complications due to pancreatic cancer. He was 40.

Houser’s last performance with the group was July 2, after which he dropped off the road to battle his illness (see “For The Record: 07.17.02″ ).

Known for his stylistically diverse playing style, Houser incorporated elements of jazz, blues and rock into his performance. As accomplished as he was, Houser didn’t showboat. His solos were shorter than those of many other jam bands and his playing complemented the music without overshadowing it.

“He had a very unique style, and his style was a big part of Widespread Panic’s sound,” said his friend Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule. “He just kind of flowed like stream of consciousness.”

In addition to being an accomplished musician, Houser was an optimistic and enthusiastic guy who cherished being with his friends as much as he treasured playing music with them. When he left the band last month, he issued a statement that read in part, “I am at my home in Athens, surrounded by my family, and being well taken care of. In the words of Lou Gehrig, ‘Though some of you may have thought I have caught a bad break, I feel like the luckiest man in the world.’ ”

“Mikey was one of those people that always had a smile on his face and always made other people feel good,” Haynes said. “We’re gonna miss him a lot.”

Houser planted the seeds of Widespread Panic in 1982 when he started jamming with vocalist John Bell in college. The next year bassist David Schools joined, and the band chose the name Widespread Panic because of Houser’s nickname “Panic.” In 1986, the band began to cement its long-term lineup by recruiting drummer Todd Nance, percussionist Domingo Ortiz and keyboardist John Hermann.

The group’s first record, Space Wrangler, was released in 1988, and over the next 13 years the band released six more records and three live albums. When Houser left the tour last month, the group’s friends George McConnell and Randall Bramblett filled in. As press time, it was unknown whether the group would play its scheduled shows on August 17 and 18 at the Seven Fiddlers’ Music Festival in Greenwood Village, Colorado.

All of the content on the official Widespread Panic Web site has been temporarily blocked, leaving only a message from the band that reads, “In this very sad time, we encourage you to gather with your Panic families in your hometown and celebrate Michael Houser’s life on Monday, August 12. Our hearts are with you as we know that your thoughts and prayers are with us.”

A private funeral is being planned for Houser. Contributions can be made to the Michael Houser Music Fund c/o Athens Academy, PO Box 6458, Athens, GA 30604.

“Mike, his wife Barbette, and his son Waker have all been deeply involved with Athens Academy,” read a press statement. “Through this fund, the school will be able to provide children with the opportunities to discover the richness and wonder of music that so enriched Michael’s own life.”