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Published: 1999/10/15
by Bob Makin

Widespread Panic: Against the Grain

After 15 years and thousands of shows, Widespread Panic has proven that hard work matters more than radio and MTV play.

The Athens, Ga.-based band sells out arenas in the South and theaters everywhere else but has yet to produce a gold record. You may remember that Phish, a fellow founding participant in the HORDE, was in the same boat until “A Live One” in 1995. Widespread also has released a live disc, last year’s double “Light Fuse Get Away.” But sales remained slim.

That may not be the case with “‘Till The Medicine Takes,” the group’s most dynamic and well structured studio effort to date. Featuring guest appearances by gospel diva Dottie Peoples, Big Ass Truck DJ Colin Butler, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s horn section and Anne Richmond Boston of The Swimming Pool Qs on backing vocals, the group’s seventh release on the ever-nurturing Capricorn Records was produced by John Keane, a mentor who is to Widespread what Tom Dowd is to the band’s older brothers from Atlanta, The Allman Brothers Band.

An eclectic outing ranging from hip-hop beats and scratches and unstoppable New Orleans funk to soulful gospel vocals and a twangy bluegrass banjo via Keane, the disc’s inclusive depth and brightness could cure the ailing, widget-peddling music industry if only it would bother to swallow the medicine.

In the meantime, Widespread vocalist-guitarist John “J.B.” Bell, keyboardist-vocalist John “Jojo” Herman, guitarist-vocalist Michael Houser, drummer Todd Nance, percussionist-vocalist Domingo S. Ortiz and bassist-vocalist Dave Schools will continue to slug it out on the road, including a jaunt to Europe. I spoke with Schools about the band’s love affair with its fans, its music and its musical influences.

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BM: Earlier this year, you broke Phish’s attendance record at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. That’s an indication that you’ll jump to larger venues soon. How do you keep that kind of growth from screwing up your head and turning away your oldest fans?

DS: As far as screwing up our head goes, I don’t think it’s going to happen. We’ve been doing this nearly 15 years. You learn to understand the kind of progression that comes with going against the grain of musical fashion and trying not to be the flavor of the month. You learn to wait. And we try to take care of the older fans with plenty of V.I.P. access. After 10 years of struggling in nightclubs, you get to know the hard-core fans. The fact that it’s never exploded has made that real.

BM: Most nights, Widespread does a three-hour show, so you rarely have an opening act. But the band loves New Orleans music so much that you occasionally tour with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Comment on what that’s like and how it translated in the studio on ‘‘Til the Medicine Takes.’

DS: As far as opening bands go, we don’t like having them. If we are going to have one, it’s going to have to be someone that we really enjoy. We do really enjoy The Meters and The Dirty Dozen and The Neville Brothers. All of them have opened for us and sent us scurrying back to our rehearsal room. We feel guilty about having them open for us. The main reason we have them is because we figure that if people like our music, which comes from our hearts, then they’ll want to learn about the things that influenced us.

To me the whole New Orleans sound played a really big part in what we do. It’s one of the few things that the whole band truly agrees on. You could put on a Dirty Dozen Brass Band record, and you’re not going to get any complaint out of any band member. Whereas I could put on the latest Butthole Surfers record, and there’ll be lots of complaints.

The Dirty Dozen opened our Halloween shows in New Orleans. It’s just become a tradition. We’ve played Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition,’ Talking Heads’ ‘Swamp’ and Funkadelic’s ‘Red Hot Mama’ with the horn section. We took the roof off the place. We’re capable of stirring up energy, but these guys added that. An extra feature to The Dirty Dozen Brass Band that I’d not realize is that you can’t stay mad for whatever reason the tour has gotten you down. So we can be in a really great mood every time we hit the stage. An instant way to get out of a shitty mood is to go and see The Dirty Dozen Brass Band play. I can’t think of any higher praise for them. They’re great guys, more than willing to come sit in us with night after night. It’s such a blast.

BM: I think the theme of ‘‘Til the Medicine Takes’ and Widespread Panic in general can be found in ‘The Waker’: ‘I’m married to my roots here. Still, I feel like I am free. Always searching for something new.’ That’s how I’d describe this record with its rootsy sounds combined with what for Widespread Panic is kind of experimental with hip-hop sounds and studio effects. How did your approach to songwriting and recording change with this record?

DS: We’ve had the same producer and mentor in John Keane. He’s the kind of person who makes you want to please him. You work hard for him. We also come to terms with using the studio as a tool to create the best photograph of the band at that time. It’s not a nightclub where you can just play or a big show with a crowd of 20,000 people egging you on. For us, it’s been a long process of coming to terms with isolating the eternal truth that really is us. And John Keane has helped push us in that direction.

We’ve been really lucky to have met people Danny Hutchins, Vic Chestnutt and Jerry Joseph, who wrote ‘Climb To Safety’ on this record. ‘Climb To Safety’ was on a Jerry Joseph record from about three years ago, but it’s one of those songs that we always felt like doing. We just did a few shows with Jerry out on the West Coast, and he was blown away.

The Brute record that we did backing up Vic Chesnutt, that’s my idea of a great record. With that record, we broke out of the hippie band mold. But those are three of the most gifted songwriters I’ve ever seen in my travels, and we’ve had the opportunity work with all of them. While there’s a change in your sound with scratching on ‘Dyin’ Man,’ there’s a bluesy organ on that tune. It’s genre blending. It’s the same with Medeski, Martin and Wood, Phish or Aquarium Rescue Unit. It’s this melting pot of different styles. If you take Middle Eastern styles with a Western backbeat, it works. Music creates a one-world kind of vision. A unity. We may never be able to solve our political differences or our religious differences, but if we can agree that our various ethnic heritages sound good mixed together, that’s a step in the right direction.

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