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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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