When the popular Georgia-based jam band Widespread Panic, rolled into Chattanooga for a concert at the Memorial Auditorium this spring, a member of their tech crew was back on familiar ground.
“It’s surreal playing there,” said former boarding student Chris Rabold ’94, who began following the group as a teenager and now works as their front house sound engineer and production manager. “High school is such a formative part of your life, and for me that’s when a lot of my musical tastes were formed. Now I’m behind the curtain, but I admit that I liked it when the curtain was there and I was on the other side of it. It was magical.”
Widespread’s roots are entwined with Chattanooga. In 1981, band member John Bell started playing with Hixson High School graduate Michael Houser. They officially became Widespread Panic when Houser asked Todd Nance, an old friend and Chattanooga Central graduate, to join them for a charity event. Followers of late eighties Baylor trivia also point out that the group played at R.A.G.T.A.I.L.S. in 1988, a few years before Rabold enrolled as a freshman.
Rabold has been in his current position with the band for ten years, but his first work with Widespread was the spring of 1995. “They were the first real band that I worked with. I worked for the better part of the year, but I wanted to get serious about the audio part, so I enrolled in MTSU and headed to Nashville.” MTSU’s proximity to the Music City gave Rabold the opportunity to go to school while working the sound board for live performances. “I worked clubs and acts in Nashville and just let the ascension start to happen. I feel grateful that I had enough sense to do it that way.” In 2000, Widespread asked Rabold to return to the group’s home base of Athens, Ga., to work “in a much greater capacity.” The band is known for improvising on stage and never playing the same set list twice, which combined with the rapid-fire change of venues, can pose a challenge for the technical crew keeping up behind the scenes. “After a while most of the work becomes routine, but there is always an element of change. The challenge is inevitable. You have to perform, just like you would in athletics or anything else, but sometimes things just don’t work. The further you stay out of your head the better off you are. As long as the world of physics exists, I will have a challenge nightly.”
While the group was on break between tours earlier this year, Rabold had the opportunity to work for pop performer Lady Gaga. “I did rehearsals in New York, the Brit awards, and shows in Manchester, England, and Dublin, Ireland. I was filling in and setting things up before their main engineer could come in.”
For Rabold it was another leap forward in his career. “That’s by far the biggest show I’ve done, and that’s what I mean by letting the ascension happen. That’s where you want to be in this field, and you have to be open to new experiences. It’s important to love the art and not the artist. I love the process of live audio and live sound. If I happen to like the band, that’s great.”