Widespread Panic still ‘in there together’
August 28, 2008
SNOWMASS VILLAGE ” An inevitable part of the road to the rock ‘n’ roll heights is coming unmoored from the roots. Poverty, anonymity and cramped sleeping quarters get exchanged for first-class treatment, fame and separate buses and hotel suites.
Widespread Panic is cherished by their legion of fans at least in part because, even as they have become one of the world’s best-selling concerts acts, they seem well-connected to the dorm rooms at the University of Georgia where the jams began. In dress and attitude, the Southern-rock sextet still seems scruffy; they come off as eager to please, and devoted to one another, to their fans and to their art.
Perhaps that is because, as they have become celebrated and well-paid, they forgot to put some physical distance between themselves.
“We take the same bus, stay in the same hotel, same dressing room,” said lead singer and rhythm guitarist John Bell by phone from Clarksville, in northern Georgia, where he was surveying the garden at the wellness center he operates with his wife. (He lives not far away, in the small mountain town of Dahlonega.) “So six months of the year we’re on top of each other, even more so than in the early years, because we’ve got a lot more gigs. We’re in there together.”
Widespread Panic started off on a path that didn’t necessarily lead to the big time. Bell joined together with fellow University of Georgia students Michael Houser and Dave Schools in the early ’80s. The way Bell describes it, it was a standard scene: “Just jamming with a couple of friends, drinking 3.2 beers and getting over our inhibitions,” he said. “We only knew a few chords. We were real young and real broke.”
But the group had what might be considered uncommon goals. Instead of looking to get on tour or into a recording studio, they concentrated on writing songs.
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“We were compelled to write decent songs first,” said the 46-year-old Bell, “as opposed to, ‘We’ve got to get a gig, make a record, get a deal.’ It was, ‘Let’s play nice together, let’s play mean together, let’s let the songs grow.’ If not, we’d just be regurgitating formulaic ideas. We cultivated our songwriting talents.”
The focus has served the band. Panic is often mentioned, alongside the Grateful Dead, as one of the few upper-level jam bands whose songs span the gamut of emotional expression. “Papa Johnny Road,” from the 2003 album “Ball,” is a terror-inducing nightmare, with its image of “newborns lashed to a dead oak tree” and the repeated sentiment, “I’ve got a real good mind to beat you senseless.” So when Bell sings something more in tune with standard jam-band fare ” say, “Havin’ a good time …/ Watching the sun shine” from “Porch Song” ” there is a balance of dark and light.
Like many good writers, Bell and his mates are connected to a regional vernacular, in their case, the South. “Papa Johnny Road” evokes Southern racism and slavery; songs like “Thin Air (Smells Like Mississippi)” and “Ribs and Whiskey” reveal a definite geographic angle, and not only in their titles. The musical language, too, is distinctively Southern; Panic’s closest brethren in the jam universe is not the Dead, but, with their roots in old blues, the Allman Brothers.
Bell, however, doesn’t make much of their Southernness. Bell himself is a Cleveland product; keyboardist John “JoJo” Herman is a native New Yorker.
“Anything that’s coming out of me, if it’s coming out right, that’s an individual thing,” said Bell, who leads the band to two headlining shows, Thursday and Friday, at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival. “So it’s hard to label it as a certain way of doing stuff. Hopefully, if you do stuff, you do it your own way.”
Still, Bell acknowledges that the band’s can’t escape its Georgia origin. “There’s some history we can’t get away from ” like growing up together musically in Athens, and signing to Capricorn Records” ” a Georgia-based label whose roster has included the Allmans, the Marshall Tucker Band and Wet Willie ” “when they started back up. A lot of great music came out of the South, and I’m glad to be included in that group: R.E.M., Dottie Peoples. But what sets everybody apart is that they’re different, trying to express themselves in their own way.”
Bell’s early method of expressing himself may be unique in rock history. It wasn’t Gregg Allman or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant that he emulated, but comedians George Carlin and Rich Little.
“They were always doing weird voices and I’d repeat them to friends,” said Bell, whose music tastes leaned toward Motown as a kid. “That taught me a little about voice control. And at 9, when I got a guitar and started writing songs, that’s when I found out what my voice was. I started thinking something was possible as 18, in college, jumping out there and trying to make some money at open mikes.”
More important than his voice, at first, was his attitude. “You’d hear yourself singing and say, ‘Geez, that sucks,'” he said. “But it doesn’t make you stop; you enjoy doing it. And you learn how to harness it in the way you want.”
From the band’s first album, 1988’s “Space Wrangler,” it was clear that Bell and his mates had something. The album was well-received among fans with certain out-of-the-mainstream tastes; three years later, Panic was invited onto the initial H.O.R.D.E. tour, which marked the coalescing of the jam-band realm. By the late ’90s, the band was selling out amphitheaters on its own. For years, it has sold out runs at Red Rocks, the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans and Philips Arena in Atlanta. This year marks the second time that Jazz Aspen has expanded its Labor Day Festival from four days to five to accommodate a two-night Widespread run.
But the band’s road hasn’t been perfectly smooth. The founding lead guitarist Houser, much loved for his introverted charm, died of pancreatic cancer in 2002. The band took all of 2004 off, and returned with George McConnell, who had occasionally jammed with Panic, as their new lead guitarist. The arrangement didn’t pan out; McConnell left the band in the middle of 2006’s summer tour. That fall, it was announced that Jimmy Herring, best known for his work in the Aquarium Rescue Unit, had taken over. (The rest of the lineup ” drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Sunny Ortiz, as well as Bell, Schools and Herman ” has been together since the late ’80s).
But Bell says that things have been “honky-dory” since. Panic released a studio CD, “Free Somehow,” its first with Herring, in May. They still tour hard; they are scheduled to eclipse 70 shows for 2008 ” and the fan base shows little sign of tailing off. And while they are no longer motivated, and united, by poverty, the band has remained noticeably grounded.
“We don’t live all in the same house anymore ” that’s different,” said Bell. “But the initial stuff the band was built on is intact. We’re a surviving entity that’s still out there.”