"A Wedding Ring or Two Rattling off the Frets" : John Bell on Widespread Panic’s Wood
I wondered about that: I know you probably roll tape more often than not, but were you specifically going into those Wood Tour shows with the goal of getting an album out if it?
That was the best-case scenario … we actually weren’t even sure we were going to be able to pull it off musically, you know? (laughs)
Yeah – our first thought was basically a one-day-at-a-time thing; we knew we could do it in a room together – to create the dynamics – but we didn’t know how that would come across in a theater setting. We had no amplification outside of the PA to push the sound, so all the dynamics were created without using big volume. You’re dropping down into quiet places; changing the groove; and then bringing the energy up a little. But it wasn’t that we had a game plan or anything – we were just finding out how to do it while we did it. (laughter)
Another thing we got really lucky with was when we went down to Cancun in January. That was an all-inclusive package where folks could buy tickets to stay at a resort where we played for four nights in a row. It sold out pretty quickly – and the next thing we knew the hotel said they had a sister hotel down the way that they could open up and provide transportation to the venue where we’d be playing. That made it so we were able to sell twice as many tickets without it being crowded for people. It worked out well.
So all of those things helped us to take the time off and still be able to work the money thing. There was some math involved there, including the band taking a substantial hit in our own salaries.
Let’s talk some more about the Wood album and the acoustic shows it documents. How do you approach an acoustic setlist? Are there any obvious tunes that you just simply would not try in that setting?
Oh, yeah … like, we wouldn’t try to blow out “Chilly Water” – what we did end up doing was changing the tempo and the feel of it so that we could use it. And the same thing for “Imitation Leather Shoes”: we turned that into a two-step and changed the arrangement around a little.
We looked at our list of songs and earmarked which ones we basically wouldn’t even try to attempt. And then during last year’s fall tour we had an earlier bus call and an hour before each show that was dedicated to rehearsing different acoustic arrangements and stuff. That turned out to be really hip, because after sitting down for an hour before every show, we were loose and focused for the real gig out in the hall. Instead of being warmed by the fifth song, we were warmed up by the first song. And our heads were in the game.
But then we realized that we would be finishing on Halloween last year and wouldn’t be seeing each other again until New Year’s, so a lot of that work and the strength in our hands from playing the acoustics was lost. We had to kind of regroup again and spend a few days in rehearsals to try to create the kind of situation we were about to go into. It ended up working out okay.
Yeah, I’d say. (laughter) You should be tickled with this thing, John – the playing’s great and it was recorded beautifully, as well. I love hearing a knuckle on the face of a guitar, or finger squeaks on a string – that’s part of the warmth of an acoustic performance.
Yeah – you can hear a wedding ring or two rattling off the frets. (laughs)
That’s the good stuff, man – that’s the flavor. So, getting back to song selection – how about some of the cover tunes? The album opener, “The Ballad Of John & Yoko”, for instance.
Let me see … I’m guessing that one might’ve been Jimmy’s suggestion. A lot of times what happens is somebody’s just sitting around with their guitar before we get together and they’re playing a lick. I think John & Yoko was one of the first new covers we brought into that situation. We didn’t expect the recognizability with the crowd on that one, as it’s a younger crowd overall. But you could tell from the bleed through the audience microphones that they at least knew the choruses. (laughter)
Well, yeah – everybody likes a sing-along where you can curse a little. (laughter) “Mercy” and “Imitation Leather Shoes” are both on Wood and Uber Cobra, the live acoustic album you released back in 2004. It was interesting to compare the versions of both songs and the band’s different approach to the same songs.
For one thing, “Imitation Leather Shoes” is in E and what happened on Uber Cobra was, the song right before it was in a relative key –
That’s right: you were coming out of something else and jammed your way into “Imitation Leather Shoes.
Yeah, I think we were coming out of a song in the key of B. Usually if I kind of remind myself that’s going to happen, I’m okay. But you can sing a B over an E and basically get yourself into trouble. (laughs) It’s a valid harmony, but you’re used to singing the whole thing a fifth up. I think it happened both nights at the House of Blues when we recorded Uber Cobra and one night came out a little better.
On Wood, I think the performance was nailed a little bit better. It had a new arrangement in it , so it had a freshness to it. I thought I sang it better.
It’s a different approach – more than just the difference between George McConnell on the earlier version and Jimmy on Wood … it’s interesting.
Another element is that Wood is true acoustic – there’s no electricity on stage. Not even JoJo’s organ – he’s using a foot pump organ.