The human race has a compulsive need to exaggerate. Why there must be about a bazillion people out there that are constantly boasting that they’re faster, smarter, richer and have been there and done that.
There’s probably even someone out there claiming to have been at every one of Widespread Panic’s record 42 straight sellouts at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre. And if you really want to have some fun with Mr. Omnipresent, just ask him to recite the setlist from all 42 shows – a hopelessly colossal exercise given the fact that the remarkable band from the Peach State has never played the same setlist twice.
That’s no exaggeration. But it is extraordinary for a band that formed close to 30 years ago when a singer everyone called J.B., a bass-playing future journalism school dropout and a guitarist nicknamed "Panic" for his bouts with anxiety went looking for a drummer for their next gig – and in fortuitous desperation drummed up a high-school band mate of the guitar player.
After a single night of rehearsing, the fearful foursome hit the stage to play a short set that opened with the Buffalo Springfield classic “For What It’s Worth.” And as thousands of Spreadheads around the world would thankfully say, the rest is musical history.
Over the past three incredible decades, the outstanding band from Athens, Georgia has impressively staked their claim in the music world by combining John Bell’s distinctive growl, Dave Schools’ lead bass playing, Todd Nance’s rock-steady drumming, Sunny Ortiz’ multi-textured percussion, JoJo Hermann’s keyboard mastery, the late Michael Houser’s unorthodox axe work and Jimmy Herring’s guitar brilliance with a willingness to walk the improvisational high wire night after night.
Bell was kind enough to sit down with me before the first of this year’s four sold out Red Rocks shows to chat about Panic’s astounding career and their triumphant return to the matchless outdoor venue. Bell concurred with the incomparable perfection of “the Rocks.”
“Great catering (laughing). It’s huge. That’ll keep you coming back. As soon as we were able to move outside of our Athens digs, we found a wonderful home in Colorado that was very forgiving, very ready to receive us and a lot of fun. And boom, you do a couple gigs and next thing you know, you got a gig of your own. So when we come here, we’re pretty grateful because the folks that come to the shows are kind of geared to this kind of musical mentality.”
A big part of the astounding venue’s appeal is its inimitable mountainous setting. Having played indoors, outdoors and everything in between, Bell voiced a pragmatic preference as to his ideal venue.
“Well you know, if it’s raining, indoors (laughing). Same thing with too much wind. If the weather is perfect outside, then outdoors is definitely the way to go because the sound doesn’t fight itself. It doesn’t bounce around. Even if there are trees around, the trees absorb the sound. It doesn’t ricochet.”
“And indoors, obviously, you have your issues sonically. Our guy’s really good, so we minimize that and usually have fine shows indoors too. Some houses are tougher than others, but for the most part that’s basically it. You can always count on it not raining indoors (laughing). But if I could, I’d rather play outdoors all the time.”
Listening to a different setlist every night is a big slice of heaven for Widespread Panic fans – especially when they’re “renting seats” for a Red Rocks four-bagger. And even though the ever-changing setlist might be hell for some artists, J.B. and the boys welcome the challenge.
“If we were even playing close to the same set list every night, we’d go bananas and we wouldn’t be here. But four nights in a row in a place? Red Rocks is definitely a special place, so there’s a bit of a challenge just to make sure that you play four shows without repeating a song that still have oomph.”
“Four or five shows without repeating a song is probably starting to stretch it. But if we screw up some, we might try to revisit ‘em, you know (laughing)? It’s like, ‘All right! You get a take over.’”
And even if the band does screw up, it’s doubtful that the enraptured masses even notice. Live Panic is the definitive “well-oiled machine,” almost to the point of the “old band mates” completing each other’s musical sentences.
“Yeah, but you know, you’re always intrigued when the sentences go into a place where you’re like, ‘Oh really? I’ve got no idea where that came from. Let’s see where this goes.’ Rhythm-wise, note-wise, you’re gonna find some tendencies.”
“Jimmy can be so quick. It’s like, ‘Whoa, you need to slow that stuff down’ to actually know where he’s going. But there’s a nice politeness there where he knows I'm trying to get in with him. So he’s listening to me and I'm listening to him and I'm on a third grade level and he’s Einstein (laughing).”
“But you learn to play together and that’s the bit. We know each other. We do know some tendencies that each of us has – ‘go-to’ places. Songwriting you can recognize. JoJo likes the chord progression a lot. Mikey used to do that too. He could see a chord progression or something that he just learned and use it a lot. And you go, ‘Wow, he discovered it he’s gonna use it.”
“You love to notice that and you love to see something that’s new too. That’s what keeps it fresh. I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t want it all to be new ‘cause I like having a little anchor in expectation, even in an improvisational sense.”
“But usually when something pops out new, it’s like ‘We’re all catching a wave. So let’s catch it. Let’s see what happens.’ You don’t always catch that wave at the same time. And when you do, that’s when new stuff starts to pop around and time slows down and you’re really hearing everybody simultaneously. It’s a pretty heavy moment and they don’t last that long.”
Truth be told, it’s those heavy moments that greatly contribute to the band’s improvisational brilliance – and the ability to keep the music fresh. Bell asserted that even after playing some of the tunes for over 30 years, it wasn’t as difficult to keep the sound innovative as it would seem.
“No. It’s kind of easier because as soon as you have a familiarity with the music, then you start finding new stuff. My producer John Keane – our best friend and go-to guy for the majority of our albums – he was making a comment about my singing style not being as melodic as it was percussive and more poetic.”
“And I couldn’t get away from that (laughing). I took it as kind of a criticism, but hopefully more like a helpful observation. Now I’ve always approached songs differently. Different than the way they are on the albums. Different than the way the song’s played the night before.”
“It’s just like, ‘Here’s what I'm going to fit into the situation.’ Same words – well, same images. Sometimes I’ll change the words a little bit. But we all know we’re going to the same place. But the idea of melody, I couldn’t let that go.”
“So now I'm in this new world of singing more melodically. I have no idea how the people dig it. For me, it’s the same words. Some of them are drawn out a little longer with a note involved and maybe a warble or something (laughing).”
Unplanned warble or not, Widespread Panic gets into some mind-blowing groves when they’re on stage. And notwithstanding the unscripted vibe of the music, one has to wonder if any of them ever find themselves experiencing a bit of unplanned déjà vu.
“Well, you can unintentionally revisit old places. It’s kind of like having a dream. I didn’t realize I was in a dream, but I was dreaming something so familiar. And when I woke up I go, ‘Oh, I was revisiting an old dream.’”
“So yeah, it’s real easy to revisit some of the places you’ve been before and forgotten about. I've revisited a lot of bars like that (laughing). You see some graffiti on the wall and go, ‘Oh my God, I've been here before! Better go home (laughing).’”
Speaking of home, the brothers of invention kicked things off in Athens, Georgia in 1986 with little fanfare. Little did anyone know at the time that Widespread Panic would become the crushing locomotive that it is today. And even though it might be easy to just sit back and let the train roll down the tracks, Bell declared that the band never takes the privilege of performing on stage lightly.
“No, you mail in other stuff, but not when you get on stage with each other. Honestly, you could have moments where you’re in your head about something. You’ve got family matters or things that are going on that might be occupying your attention.”
“But that usually – and I would say almost always – gives way to what you’re doing at the moment. Because you’ve got the notes, you’ve got the sound and the percussiveness and working with five other guys all at once. It’s gonna grab your attention. You’re going to be there in the moment, even if some stuff is really rattling you on the outside, you know?”
“If you mail it in, that makes it hard, so it’s better to be present. That’s a pitfall. It’s not a fun option at all. I've found myself in places and being on autopilot, but then be like, ‘Okay come back out of your thought.’ It’s easy to get stray thoughts.”
“It’s like meditation. It’s like, 'Come back to your center. Come back to your point of focus.' When you do, you’re in it and it’s so much more fun. And so you remember that and do it and time goes by faster and you’re playing better and you’re right there listening to everybody.”
The only ones having more fun than the band members at a Panic show are the delirious fans. For some of those euphoric music lovers, Bell and his band mates are splendidly filling the huge void left by the demise of The Grateful Dead. The whisky-throated frontman wasn’t quite as convinced however.
“I’ll take your word for that (laughing). I would say that the same thing that drew me to the Grateful Dead back in high school – well, first my friends drew me to it – and I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is weird. You can’t even hear anything on these tapes. What are you doing (laughing)?’ And then I started hearing some better recordings and said, ‘Oh, I see what’s going on.’”
“But this thing was freeform jazz – not so freeform, but well-thought out jazz. There’s a certain type of personality that finds themselves on this planet and they groove on music that will surprise them, that’s not trying to entertain them, not trying to satisfy their egos while they’re on stage being ‘big rock stars.’ They are playing music in front of people and what’s going to happen is what’s going to happen.”
“I wouldn’t even say I loved the Dead at their peak. But we played a gig with (Bob) Dylan and I think it was Phil Lesh and Friends. I got to sit in the audience and watch and I was getting the same feeling I was at Dead shows. It wasn’t perfect, but it was really souped up and the kids were really souped up and you were getting that vibe from all around you in the audience. I don’t get to experience it that much from an audience standpoint.”
“So I would say we’re not filling a void. We’re doing what we do and that is something that’s always been available. That’s the way that anybody has had their choice to approach music one way or the other. And I think of it as performance as opposed to entertainment. You might be trying to hit that perfect dive and you’re going to catch a belly flop. But you were trying something you hadn’t tried. All of a sudden you thought, ‘Maybe I can do it (laughing).’”
It’s rare that a band stays together for four decades. Ironically though, it just may be the band members’ respective solo projects that keep the collective fires burning for Widespread Panic – Schools’ stint with The Mickey Hart Band and Herring’s time with Trigger Hippy for instance.
“That’s a viable premise,” agreed Bell. “My solo project basically is Widespread Panic. Everything else is ‘other stuff,’ you know, golf, gardening, just hanging out, doing some painting, writing some poetry. It depends on how the music, lyrically, how things come out.”
“If they’re not coming out in music form in my head, they might just come out in poetic form or something like that. But anything we do outside of Widespread Panic when we have time off, if it’s good and nurturing to the individual, then they’re going to bring that richness back into the fold. I would always think it’s a good thing.”
Whether you call him a poet or a lyricist, Bell definitely has a way with words. And for the gifted wordsmith, it isn’t a case of “never the twain shall meet.” It’s not unusual for a Bell poem to become a song.
“It happens both ways. I do my best not to control it. There are times – especially crunch time during making albums – that you might get into more of an editing phase. But personally, writing poetry has just been more freeform and easy and goes anywhere. And songwriting – if you’re hitting it, if you get some ideas and you get some lyrics and you get some rhyme schemes – it’s gonna fall in place really easy, like a little Sunday cartoon.”
“I do force myself sometimes to sit down and write. And luckily that opens a faucet. Sometimes the faucet just opens on its own and you go, ‘Whoa, I gotta go write something down.’ And other times you’ve just been watching TV a lot or you’ve been moving or you’ve been dealing with family issues or something like that and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I haven’t done my writing gig or had that creative outlet.’”
“Or I haven’t been letting myself have that indulgence. For me it is a joy. It is an indulgence. Sometimes it’s a guilty indulgence because it’s like, ‘Wow, this is great and it’s just me. Nobody gets to sit in on this until I share it with the boys.’”
“So luckily, either the dam is leaking or the faucet’s open or whatever analogy you want to use. Or if I need to go open the faucet, it seems like there’s always water there and I'm very grateful for that.”
Panic opened the faucet for fans thirsting for a live record with the release of 2012’s “Live Wood,” featuring performances from their 2012 acoustic "Wood Tour." And while Bell correctly pointed out that an “acoustic” tour is really somewhat mistitled, the band learned something from the experience nonetheless.
“Well we never actually played acoustically, never, ever, ever. Even when we did the ‘Sit and Ski’ thing it was largely electric. But we were sitting down and played a little quieter maybe. Because of the element of the unknown – how we were going to pull it off dynamically – we did a little bit of homework, we did a lot of practicing. I would say I preferred that because it was so brand new and we found a way.”
“What we couldn’t do with volume and intensity we did with dynamics, and that was really hip. And now that has filtered back into our electric sets, so I see us moving back into some ebb and flow instead of just trying to strangle the thing.”
“We’ve got a lot of heavy hitters. Between JoJo and Dave and Jimmy, they could just blast off and never come back. But the feeling of being able to come down and go back and come down, that ebb and flow? I think we retain a lot of that from the acoustic set.”
The ebb and flow of a Panic show provides shelter from life’s storms for legions of loyal fans – to say nothing of the band members. The insightful Bell talked about the creative refuge that is the concert stage.
“Time’s gonna catch up but there’s something that goes down when we’re playing that is enlivening and enriching – like an exercise or yoga or something. With me it’s singing. Maybe it’s breathing.”
“It’s as simple as a yoga thing where you breathe in deeply and slowly let it out while you’re singing the lyrics and stuff – and then trying to stay focused for three and a half hours. I don’t know. But I only found myself doing that while I'm on stage with the band on tour and I think there’s a very positive effect there. I would be a little spooked to leave that.”
“Part of me would also like to leave the folderol and just be an older gentleman. But as it is, I haven’t seen how to do all that at the same time. So I’ve been here, not only ‘cause we still have songs to write and stuff, but there’s also something very life enriching.”
“And it isn’t about being admired or people digging you or something. To me really, the closest I can get to it is thinking it might be breathing and thinking that there’s something enriching there.”
And that my musical friends, sums up Widespread Panic about as succinctly as possible – something that is as natural and life enriching as breathing…
There are still plenty of dates left on Panic’s fall tour. Here are the remaining shows:
Sep. 20 & 21 – Memphis, Tenn. – Snowden Grove Amphitheater
Sep. 22 – Cincinnati, Ohio – Taft Theatre
Sep. 24 – Detroit, Mich. – The Fillmore
Sep. 26-28 – Milwaukee, Wis. – Riverside Theater
Sep. 29 – Indianapolis, Ind. – Murat Theatre at Old National Centre
Oct. 1 – Carbondale, Ill. – SIU Arena
Oct. 3 – Tuscaloosa, Ala. – Tuscaloosa Amphitheater
Oct. 4 & 5 – Charleston, S.C. – Family Circle Stadium*
Oct. 25 & 26 – Austin, Texas – Austin City Limits Live at Moody Theater
Oct. 27 – Houston, Texas – Bayou Music Center
Oct. 29 – Tulsa, Okla. – The Brady Theater
Oct. 31–Nov. 2 – New Orleans, La. – Keifer Uno Lakefront Arena*
*Nov. 1 w/The New Orleans Suspects
*Nov. 2 w/Bonerama
Nov. 5 – Miami, Fla. – The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theatre*
*w/Roosevelt Collier & Bobby Lee Rodgers Band
Nov. 6 – Jacksonville, Fla. – Moran Theater
Nov. 8 & 9 – Asheville, N.C. – Exploreasheville.com Arena
Nov. 12 – Baltimore, Md. – Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric
Nov. 14 – Syracuse, N.Y. - Landmark Theatre
Nov. 15 – Boston, Mass. - Orpheum Theatre
Nov. 16 – New York, N.Y. – Theater at Madison Square Garden
Dec. 31 – Atlanta, Ga. – Philips Arena