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Published: 2010/04/30
by Randy Ray

True to Our Nature with John Bell

Photo by Craig Taraszki

Widespread Panic rolls into their 25th year as a band in 2010 without any hint of either slowing down on stage, or breaking away from finding new avenues of songwriting. Indeed, their 11th studio, Dirty Side Down, and the second with veteran guitarist, Jimmy Herring, is a barnstorming mixture of everything grand and cinematic about the band. The twelve-track album is an invigorating and memorable adventure with a blend of new material, road-tested songs, and two poignant cover versions, “North,” written by Jerry Joseph, and Vic Chesnutt’s “This Cruel Thing.” The latter tune was an especially inspired choice since the musician’s untimely passing occurred just a week before Panic began recording songs, and provided additional resonance for a group striving to return to their loose “old-timely garage band” roots in the studio. The album showcases the fact that the Georgia sextet has matured without losing any of their road-tested speed, or songwriting prowess, along the side of an American highway. caught up with front man, guitarist and vocalist, John Bell, on the second of a two-day break in Washington D.C. while in the early stages of a tour supporting Dirty Side Down. Their tour card is full with dates across the country, including a Red Rocks’ sold out-record lengthening residency, and a series of festival dates. Bell is friendly and open, albeit a reserved southern gentleman. True to his nature, when he has an answer, he gives it, and then invites another as if he is more than willing to take things in confident stride, but also wise enough to view it with a playful grin, as well.

And Bell has had to do that as Panic has weathered key personnel changes in recent years from the passing of original guitarist, Michael Houser to pancreatic cancer in 2002, and the exit of his replacement, George McConnell in 2006. Since then, veteran Aquarium Rescue Unit, Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers band member, Jimmy Herring has stepped in, and helped deepen the band’s eclectic time signature choices, while offering a fairly robust and flexible guitar to the dense textures of the classic Panic sound.

Bell is also a man who laughs quite a bit, and his answers are often punctuated by laughter, showing that, in the end, often what one is challenged with in life isn’t as important as how one faces those challenges. The man has succeeded by continuing to offer laconic wit, a charismatic stage presence, and a timeless lyrical phrase while moving forward with a band braced to celebrate, in their own reserved fashion, a 25th anniversary year. Sometimes, those rare on-the road moments include a quiet trip featuring some of the kings of American live music visiting royalty of a different kind. “We got into D.C. yesterday,” explains Bell, “and went to go visit the West Wing, which was kind of cool. I haven’t even been on a regular White House tour before.”

RR: Nearly a quarter century has gone by since 1986 when Widespread Panic got its start. Is it amazing to look back at all of that time and the experiences you’ve had?

JB: Yeah, it’s a little odd. (laughter) I really don’t think of it in linear-time terms, but when you look at it, it’s a long time. And then when you see pictures, you wonder where all those shirts went to. (laughter)

RR: And all the music, as well. How do you stay concentrated and focused on the road while touring with Panic?

JB: We know what floats our boat—individually, and as a band, how to stay happy, all the comfort zones, and how to work together. Most importantly, we keep putting new music together, keeping the sets varied, and that’s extremely helpful so you don’t run into a rut kind of feeling.

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