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Published: 2008/11/23
by Amy Jacques

Dave Schools Reflects on Bill Graham

On Nov. 19, Widespread Panic played a benefit concert for the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation at the Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza. The event was presented in conjunction with Live Nation and coincided with the Billboard Touring Conference and Awards where the band was honored for consistently being one of the 50 top-grossing touring bands with the “Road Warrior” award.

In addition to honoring the life of the late renowned concert impresario Bill Graham, the goal of the evening was to raise money for the foundation, which strives to help “the unappreciated people who are too small to be noticed by big foundations for grants,” according to president, Bob Barsotti. “Primarily we work in the area of art and music for kids,” he explains, “But also in health care, ecological and environmental concerns and any kind of compassionate project in our community.”

Dave Schools, bassist for Widespread Panic, is a longtime admirer of Bill Graham and the band is known for its likeminded contributions to charitable organizations. Schools took a break from a relentless touring schedule to speak with about Graham’s influence on rock n’ roll and the band, the changing face of the music industry, and how it feels to for Widespread Panic to be honored by Billboard magazine.

AJ: I know fans are excited to see the band play a small club in New York. Are you looking forward to playing the Fillmore East at Irving Plaza and a room of that size?

DS: Well, the Fillmore is what used to be called Irving Plaza which has been there for a long time and we used to do a lot of gigs there in New York in the early 90s. That was our primary place to play before we moved up to the next step up to play at the Roseland Ballroom. And it’s a great place. It’s a really historic, vibey venue and I think it’s perfect for this kind of event because it’s intimate and it’s got an upstairs balcony-type area and then just a big dance floor. So, people who go there enjoy it and it’s pretty small, so we are able to get maximum bang for the buck. You know, people are able to be close and it’s obviously benefiting a great foundation too.

AJ: How do you regard other Graham venues (like the Fillmore West, Winterland, Shoreline…) in relation to the new venues of today?

DS: Well, one of the things about BGP Bill Graham Productions was when Bill was alive, all his values and all the unique sort of things he brought to music promotion were in evidence of those gigs. So, if you played at the Warfield in San Francisco, it was fun. And Bill’s idea was if you make an experience fun for the musicians and you feed them good food, then that’s what translates to the way they perform. So, one of the things he did when he began promoting rock shows in the 60s was to make it an experience not just for the audience, but for the band. And consequently, the bands enjoyed playing at Bill Graham events, they enjoyed playing at Bill Graham’s venues, they were treated fairly and with respect and taken care of, and those places became special to the bands and also to the fans. Because everything was sort of heightened the whole experience.

To this day at the Fillmore in San Francisco, there are baskets of apples in the lobby. And I always thought that was funny. You know, you go see a little rock show, and you get an apple you can munch on. But then I thought about the other side of it. You know, if you don’t really dig what’s happening on stage, you can always lob an apple at the band. laughter But, see that doesn’t happen at Bill Graham shows. laughter Now, he’s the kind of guy that would put Miles Davis on the same bill with Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, just to mix things up a little. So, you know, what’s changed is Bill Graham passed away and everything went corporate. There are some factions of people who came from BGP who are still out there and are still trying to keep it a fun experience for the bands. Whereas there are also venues and promoters now where you’re the help and you go in there and you play. In the end, people sort of get cheated by those places.

AJ: Each of you guys does so much to give back with Tunes for Tots, Panic Fans for Food, building houses in New Orleans, Hannah’s Buddies What does it mean to you to be asked by the Bill Graham Foundation to be a part of an event like this?

DS: Well, it’s definitely an honor. I assume that [the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation] is going into the vibe that Bill sort of always had, which is the support of music and arts and education probably with a sort of greener and more spiritual leaning. Because that’s how Bill was and I think it sort of runs tandem with all of the charitable things Widespread Panic likes to do. We think it’s important to put musical instruments back in the schools, we support local charities and food banks, and making sure that people have housing in the event of a disaster. And you know, these are the things that feel good to us so, it is an honor to take part in something a little more national and larger. It’s always an honor and anything that has to do with Bill, I’m there. Because we just didn’t get enough of Bill as a band in our history. We had a couple of experiences with him personally that are some of the highlights of my career, and then he was taken from us.

AJ: Can you tell me a little bit about those encounters with him and his relationship with the band?

DS: Well, we met him basically because we’d been doing a lot of shows with Blues Traveler, which was sort of this young band at the time that he took under his wing, so to speak. They were managed at one time by his son David. And we met him first at a festival in Telluride, Colo. inI want to say it was 1991. We were the first band on the bill that day and it was a 3-day festival and we were the first band on the bill of the last day. And I think we went on at about 1 o’clock or 2 o’clock in the afternoon and it was pouring rain. And being a young band and always wanting to do the right thing, we were very concerned that we got offstage at the right time because we didn’t want to throw off the Allman Brothers thing that went on at 8 o’clock that night. [laughter]

So, we played our set and there was a surprisingly large amount of enthusiastic people standing there in the cold, wet rain and we finished our set and went offstage and we’re about to walk off of the side of the stage, and there’s Bill Graham holding a copy of our record [titled Widespread Panic, commonly referred to as Mom’s Kitchen], which was about to come out the next week, and blocking our way. And he’s like, “Where do you guys think you’re going?” And we were like, “Well, we’ve finished that was our allotted time and we used it.” And he goes, “Don’t you think those people out there in the rain might like an encore?” And I thought, wow he gets it. It’s not just about punching the clock with this guy. It’s about giving the people what they want.’ So we went out there and we did an encore and then our record company gave us shit for doing a ballad. [laughter] But, Bill got it, and to me that was a great experience.

And there was one time when we opened for Blues Traveler at The Warfield this was right before he passed away. And I went up to the balcony and just found an empty seat and I sat down to watch the show and I looked over to my right and I was sitting by Bill Graham who was up there watching the show and enjoying it like a fan. You, know he wasn’t down there counting money or partying with other people he’s watching the music. And that’s just a rare thing.

AJ: How did Bill Graham influence live rock and what impact did his work have on you and the band?

DS: Well, that’s a question for the history books. I mean, people like him and Peter Grant changed rock n’ roll history. They made it possible for the era of the supergroups. They put control back in the hands of the band and gave them time, let them make money. He realized that if the band is happy, then the experience that they provide for the audience is going to be heightened. Whereas, before, bands went on tour simply to promote their record and they played a couple songs, and they played their hit single, and then got offstage and the next big thing got on stage. There would be these sort of traveling circuses of five or six major artists on one show and they’d all play for about 20 minutes or a half an hour. So it was bands like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones and promoters like Bill Graham that allowed a band to come in and play a stadium for three hours and give the people what they want, and create a fanbase. These are lessons that stick with us to this very day.

AJ: Congratulations on the Road Warrior Award from Billboard. What does it mean to you guys to win the first award to honor a consistently top grossing live touring band?

DS: It’s always humbling. And one of the reasons it’s humbling to win an award like that is being students of music and lovers of music and live music we know that there are people out there who have worked a lot harder and gotten far less attention and probably deserve this award far more than we do. But at the same time, it is our reputation for that kind of hard work because the road work isn’t necessarily something that’s always rewarded by the industry. We do it because we love it and it’s the way that we make a living providing an experience for people who want to come to our concerts and that’s really fulfilling on a nightly basis, even in the most struggling of times it’s always fulfilling.

AJ: With all of the changes in the music industry and the fact that album sales are no longer a primary source of revenue, do you think that establishing this award will help touring bands gain more respect from the industry as a whole?

DS: No. You know, I think the industry is completely and utterly misguided. Billboard has always been a keeper of stats, if you will and not always just album sales, there have been stats of all kinds and concert grosses and so on and so forth. And to remain viable, they have to roll with the changes, to quote REO Speedwagon. laughter So, that’s what they’re doing. There are a lot of bands out there that are having a pretty good heyday without major label backing and all of the hype that comes with making a record. They find a way to virally market themselves on the Internet, and their fanbase does all of that advertising for them. And in that way, sort of, the axiom of “cream rises” really holds true. It’s the word of mouth and the grapevine and the fans who are absolute fanatics for a band and they get the word out. And they support the music. And for better or for worse, that’s always what Widespread Panic has had very vocal and very loyal fans.

AJ: What would Graham think of the music industry today with things like downloading live shows instantaneously, sites like PanicStream, and promoters like Live Nation (who may be seen as a modern day Bill Graham)?

DS: I think he’d be proud and I think he would never rest on his laurels. I think he’d realize that there’s a new thing happening and that he would be a smart enough man to find a way to both exploit it for himself and to ask a few favors. You know, he’s an impresario. That’s what he always was first and foremost. It’s just that rock n’ roll became the medium that he was the most successful with.

I think this event is going to be really cool and it’s always quite an experience for us to participate in one of these industry things. The Georgia Music Hall of Fame induction was a whole new world to us. Twenty-something years in the business, and that’s our first red carpet event. These things we’re just not used to them, but we don’t take them for granted. It’s always a fun experience to go through one.

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