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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

Panic is a good-sized band with a big sound but you’ve always managed to keep it under control. So how is it for you in an acoustic setting? Other than what’s coming out under your arm, you have no amps … you’re relying totally on the monitors, right?

Right – and we were using in-ear monitors. We couldn’t use regular wedges – they would just feed back – but Jimmy had never used in-ear monitors before. It was all a big “what if,” you know? “Are we going to be able to communicate properly?”

I thought the volume level made for a lot of room for nuance and different embellishments. And I loved that they were all one take – man, I’d love to do a studio album where you just did one take without overdubs.

One of my faves was the instrumental “St. Louis” – that’s a natural for that setting. Were there any favorites for you? Any tracks on Wood that surprised you after the fact?

Let’s see … a couple of the covers … “Sell Sell.” And “Many Rivers to Cross” was another one that surprised me. I mean, it felt really good when we were playing them, but to be first-time songs and to hear the audience react positively to the songs like they had heard us do them before was kind of rewarding.

The album is made of several shows, but it flows and feels and sounds like a single two-set show.

Yeah, that was another challenge: I’m looking at the recordings from the shows and saying, “Where do I even begin?” There was a lot of music to sift through. And I hate sitting around listening to our band. (laughter)

So I loaded the visors in my truck with the shows: “Denver; first night; first set; second set; encore …” and when I was making a long trip I’d pull them out and start listening. To figure out sequencing, I said, “Well, if I’m going to do it on vinyl, I know my limitations there” – about 20 minutes to a side before the sound begins to degrade – so that helped me with a starting point. The thing started to take shape and I would e-mail around and send some actual tracks to the guys and see if they liked the flow. We were working on it together. Even our agent had some input and we hardly ever let that happen. (laughs)

So yeah – it was a family affair and it was all new. I’m really proud of the way it came out. When we’re finished with a project, I’m usually done with it – I won’t listen to a track off a live album again for five years or something like that. (laughs)

How does the acoustic setting affect how you and Jimmy interact with each other?

I think it always works the same, as long as we can hear each other. If I can listen to him and complement where he’s going either rhythmically or with a single note here and there – and if he can hear me and he can play off the pushes and pulls and shapes that I’m creating, then we’ve got a kind of a conversation going.

And it’s not just us; you’ve got JoJo in the background and he’s picking up on what we’re doing or we’re picking up on what he’s doing … I think because of the decibel level on stage, hearing each other was more consistently easy than it is in an electric setting. But we’ve had some great rooms where communication was great when we were playing electric, as well.

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