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Published: 2012/11/23
by Brian Robbins

"A Wedding Ring or Two Rattling off the Frets" : John Bell on Widespread Panic’s Wood

Photo by Tarver Shelton

Widespread Panic’s last act before taking a much-deserved break for much of 2012 was a run of all-acoustic shows this past February, spread over 11 stops in 4 cities (DC, Atlanta, Denver, and Aspen). The totally-unplugged setting presented challenges for the band, but they rose to them like true jam veterans – and the results are documented on their new release Wood. The 2-CD/20-track album finds the band in top-notch form, taking advantage of the unique setting to explore new territory in some familiar tunes (along with a number of choice covers). Don’t mistake “acoustic” for “peaceful” – Wood is powerful and pure. It’s Panic at their best.

Widespread’s John Bell shared some of his time with us recently to talk about playing in an acoustic setting, personal rediscovery, formation flying, and the building of Wood.

BR: I don’t know what most folks’ vision of a Widespread Panic hiatus is, but it’s not like a lot of golf games. It seems like you have all been pretty busy individually this past year.

JB: (laughs) Yeah – the other guys have been playing music with different bands. Plus, we have families and stuff, too … it’s just a healthy thing for everybody.

Personally, I like getting away and doing something totally different creatively – whether it’s gardening or painting or something like that – and try and find myself again.

Speaking of your painting, where can we find some examples of it?

Well, I don’t do it that much. Usually, it’s a once-in-a-while thing and if I do one, I’ll put it up for auction at my charity event in Orlando. But I don’t push myself – I do it when I do it and it’s a lot of fun. I listen to somebody else’s music (laughter), have a glass of wine, and start slapping some paint on. It’s not like I have any training, so there are no rules – it comes out the way it comes out.

Just like the music.

That’s right – I don’t have any musical training, either, so it just comes out the way it comes out. (laughter)

I wish I could remember who it was – one of the old blues guys – who was asked if they had any musical training and they answered, “Not enough to bother my playing.”

(laughs) I like it.

I don’t know if folks are aware of how much charity work you’re involved in, John. In fact, you have a project going on right now, don’t you?

Yeah, I’m actually here in a little artistic community just outside of Clarksville, GA called Sautee-Nacoochee and we have two food drives going on: a November session and then another one in December [12/3-12/15]. Widespread Panic’s lighting guy Paul Hoffman came in and helped me design a labyrinth on the community center’s gym floor using 14 spotlights. The labyrinth covers the whole floor and takes about six minutes to walk.

Oh, man …

Yeah – it’s really something. People bring food in and place it on the edges of the pathway. By the end of two weeks of donations, you’ve got a ton of food – canned goods, flour, sugar, and stuff – lining the labyrinth. It’s really a community art project.

It sounds beautiful, John. And people are actually creating the art themselves with their donations.

That’s right – and they get to come in during the rush of the holidays, slow down … and contemplate whatever they want. It’s another way to give without just rushing through the giving process. The bottom line is, it’s a tough time for a lot of folks to just keep food on the table, especially with the cold weather and heating bills are going up. The food banks are working hard and they’re getting stretched.

Oh, that’s great John. We’ll post a link for folks who want to send monetary donations.

That would be great, man. It’s on the Panic website, as well.

[More details can be found at the Cedar Heights Center webpage or on the “Sidestage” page of the Widespread Panic website. ]

I know that bands get to a point where they need to take time for themselves, but there’s also an obligation to the organization, as well. Then it’s the cycle of if you don’t take a break, you burn out; but if you don’t tour, there’s an income crunch … I’m imagining that was one big thing that the band had to take into consideration when the idea of a hiatus first came up.

Oh yeah – that was an interesting meeting. (laughs) One of the main reasons for taking the time was to step back from the Widespread Panic-ness and rediscover ourselves individually. When you come back, you rediscover each other and there’s a freshness to it.

But we do have a full-time staff at our offices and the merchandising warehouse, and we need to keep all those salaries and health benefits and stuff cooking at the same time – that’s their livelihood and most people don’t have the luxury of taking a year off. So we talked about it and we tried to work the math and crossed our fingers.

Two of the things that really helped make it happen were the all-acoustic Wood Tour last January and February and the ensuing CD and DVD from that.

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There are 22 comments associated with this post

Peachhead November 24, 2012, 16:52:28

JB, you’re the man. Looking forward to 2013!

oibfan November 24, 2012, 17:32:02

Nice article, good to hear from the boys during a break. Guess I gotta buy some wood for christmas & can’t wait for some mo panic!!

wayne johnson November 26, 2012, 12:57:32

Hey JB you and the rest of your band stick them tokens you know where.

eric November 26, 2012, 13:08:06

My wife walked down the aisle to “St. Louis” from the Denver Wood Tour show. I actually asked her to marry me after they played the song live. We saw JB at the airport on Monday morning as he was headed back to Georgia. We told him about our story/stituation and he wished us a happy life together! One of the nicest celebrities I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. God bless you JB and all the fellas in WSP.

Non hater November 26, 2012, 13:15:57

Haters gonna hate. There are plenty of rooms available still if you actually look into it in various forums online. With that said, please don’t look into it as your karma probably prevented it in the first place, dick.

Brandy Shepard November 26, 2012, 13:16:28

Great read. I thought the wood cd turned out nicely. I’m looking forward to the NY and some Panic.

Tom Pace November 26, 2012, 13:58:37

Wayne, thanks for you input..I’ll make sure to think about you while we’re down there drinking rum drinks in the sun..Great interview JB..

Steven Rozanski November 27, 2012, 18:16:16

JB, Please bring the mandolin on new years

freddy pop tops November 27, 2012, 19:16:27

JB = Mr.Soul. Can’t wait to Panic in c-lotte. Where are the Spring tour dates?

jk November 28, 2012, 05:59:32

“most people don’t have the luxury of taking a year off”

Blooby November 28, 2012, 06:17:46

Widespread is a band I just don’t get. Could somebody recommend a live show or two for me? Perhaps I just haven’t been looking hard enough.

js November 28, 2012, 10:38:56

To the band…I have the Wood tour vinyl, its great….but why release a short version on record store day with all the same tunes… a little change there would’ve been nice, otherwise many people didn’t pick it up. To Blooby, fundamentally, WSP is one of the few jambands that creates excellent records. I suggest you go listen to everything up to Everday as a start. This is the only band I would recommend the albums over the shows if you are having a difficult time….then go to the Domin. Repub.

Blooby November 28, 2012, 14:01:06

Js, thanks for the response. I have also thought this about their studio vs. live material. Seems antithetical to say this about a jamband. I especially thought this during the Mikey days, which I know is akin to being sacrilegious in the community. I will try the new acoustic live disc as well.

JC November 29, 2012, 13:59:57

Blooby, Get Live in the Classic City (3 CDs). You will not regret it. Derek Trucks on Climb to Safety is unbelievable. Ride Me High, Tall Boy, Red Hot Mama, Worry, Hatfield,Let’s Get the Show on the Road…all excellent. And a great sampling of WSP material. Party on.

timmy November 30, 2012, 14:03:48

Live in the Classic City and Light Fuse, Get Away are both absolutely sick, and a “Live Panic” starting point for sure. They were always great live but ’97-‘02 was definitely their peak., so anything from that era is what you want to get. I’ve seen them 30+ times, and they are different but still rediculouly good with Jimmy. Some old fans say his Van Halen style soloing doesn’t fit their songs, but I love it, and will still travel to see them.

Blooby November 30, 2012, 14:26:25

I have “Light Fuse…” and will have to break it out again. My foggy recollection was that many of their live songs during this time hung around mid-tempo with not much dynamics. I will give it a spin again this weekend. Thanks for the input.

JC November 30, 2012, 16:17:59

Get Live in the Classic City. I am telling you. Better than Light Fuse (although I love that one too). Buy it and start with Ride Me High. Then Tall Boy—Red Hot Mama—Worry. When you are coming home after a long night of partying, put on Let’s Get the Show on the Road. Timmy (Tucker) is right. It is “sick.”

timmy December 1, 2012, 02:06:52

The mistake I think that alot of very music savvy people make when listening to Panic is assuming it’s all gonna be face melting jam. It’s never been like that. It’s much more straight forward, kind of heavier rock. Mikey was called the Lingering Lead for a reason. He was a noodler whose soloing was very subtle. He’s not Trey. Jimmy’s soloing is much different and more in your face. Above all, they are just a great rock band with a very classic rock sound who bring a tremendous amount of energy and musicianship to their shows.

Rod Stiffington December 2, 2012, 18:04:35

I would recommend Disco from the “Panic in the Streets” live album. I first heard them in the Telluride rainout and didn’t get to see the three set show the day after. The three songs were impressive but until I heard that version of Disco, I knew this was my band. To me that blazin’ solo rates up there with “Eruption” or “Stairway to Heaven.”

Stolly December 2, 2012, 19:27:30

I would suggest starting at Space Wrangler. Track 7 into 8…“Stop-Go” into “Driving Song”. Enjoy the ride!

dragen December 3, 2012, 14:15:57

I recommend never listening to them. The music hurts the ears.

D Clubb December 4, 2012, 16:17:14

26 Days until hiatus ends!!!! Can not freakin wait!!!!

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