POSTED ON JUNE 15, 2011:
Steady at the Wheel
Widespread Panic celebrates a quarter century on the road
After spending 25 years at the same job, most people get burned out. Even when that job is being in a rock band, the threat is there, whether it be from simple road weariness or exhaustion and frustration from dealing with the business aspects of a career. All too often we've seen artists throw their hands up and walk away or witnessed bands splinter under the stress of trying to manage a longstanding profession in music.
There's some sense of relief, then, when speaking to John Bell and finding him still so affable and at ease with his position, even after leading Widespread Panic for an amazing quarter century.
Founded by Bell and guitarist Mike Houser in 1986, the foundation for Widespread Panic was laid a few years earlier as Houser and Bell performed together as a duo in college.
"Mike and I had been playing together, off and on, for a couple of years, mostly as a duo. We had tried to do the band thing a couple of times, but it never got past a couple practices," Bell recalled. "We met Dave (Schools, on bass) a year or so later and then we met Todd (Nance, on drums). At that point, we were a band because we figured once you have a drummer, you're a band. Before that, you're just a combo," he chuckled.
When reflecting on how the band's longstanding career came about, Bell was just as self-deprecating.
"It all came along very languidly," he said, "but we were having fun. We were out schlepping for gig, then we eventually had more gigs than we could play and keep our day jobs, so music became our job."
Since then, Widespread Panic has become a favorite on the jam band scene, and over the course of 25 years, has become one of the most consistent bands in the genre. Although every such act still falls in the shadow of the Grateful Dead, over the years, Widespread Panic has proven to be one of the bands that was consistently on the cutting edge of the genre. Looking back on the scene as it was beginning to flourish in the early '90s, I asked about the group's involvement in the initial Horde Festival tours.
"We played the first couple of years of Horde, in '90 and '91, I think," he recalled. "It was right around the time of our first major label album. All of the bands were pretty well established, but the beauty of it was no one was too big or overly huge yet."
Bell said most of the Horde acts had previously performed together, anyway.
"We'd take bands like Phish and Blues Traveler to the South, where we were more established and they would take us to the North," he said. "Our thought was we're all touring this summer, so why not do something together? We did four shows in the North and four in the South the first year. We were all having a good time together and crossing paths a lot anyway, so it was an excuse to get together and all play to a larger audience."
So how does a band carry on with the same enthusiasm 26 years into its career?
"Touring keeps things vital," Bell said. "We're still writing new songs and the fact that we're still having fun is a big part of it. That and the 24-hour room service," he laughed.
When asked how the band keeps things fresh from night to night and continues to play completely different sets each show, Bell said, "It's really a no-brainer because it keeps you from getting into a rut. It also keeps you aware of the songs you've written and keeps things from getting stale."
Bell admitted that the Widespread musicians keep copies of recent set lists posted as well as the rest of the band's catalog of songs.
"We make ourselves aware of what we've played recently," he said. "We know in our heads, but it's good to keep things in front of you. That way it's easier and there's no way to play the same set twice."
After 25 years on the road, touring has become a way of life for the band.
"It's pretty much our way of doing things," Bell said. "There are still a few little tweaks here and there to make things go smoothly, but we've pretty much settled in and know how to do things."
At this point, Bell acknowledged that many of the cities and venues are familiar to the band, especially where the band has longstanding relationships with venues and promoters that haven't changed.
"One of the hippest things is not only are we still able to play, but we get to revisit old, familiar faces," he said. "We're still seeing some of the same people we saw when we started out and that's really cool."
When Widespread Panic arrives in Tulsa this Sunday night, June 19, it will be returning to one of those old, familiar venues. Originally planned for the BOK Center, the show was recently moved to the Brady Theater, but that's fine with Bell and many fans that are looking forward to the show. The band already has a familiarity with the historic theater and the intimate setting makes for a great place to experience the band's live show.
The band may be celebrating its 25th anniversary, but it shows no sign of slowing down or retiring from the road any time soon. In speaking with Bell, you get the distinct feeling that the horizon isn't even close to approaching for Widespread Panic and as long as the live shows continue to be as engaging as they have in years past, that's just fine with fans, both old and new.
A 25th anniversary tour is just one more reason to come out and celebrate with the band, especially when you know each night will be a special experience.
Tickets are still available for Sunday night's show for $41.
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