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Published: 2017/04/16
by Larson Sutton

John Bell on Widespread Panic’s Festival Focus

Photo by Dean Budnick

John Bell is welcoming the beautiful weather and, with that, the Widespread Panic singer and guitarist’s thoughts turn to an upcoming touring schedule loaded with festival appearances. After three decades as the consummate road warriors, the group is significantly reducing their number of shows for 2017. We spoke with Bell from his North Carolina home a few days ahead of Widespread Panic’s two headlining nights at Sweetwater 420 Fest on April 22 and 23, preceded by an appearance at Wanee on April, as the band kicks off festival season.

You’re headlining two nights this weekend at the Sweetwater 420 Festival in the band’s hometown of Atlanta. What’s special about those shows?

Off the top of my head, I’d say it’s close to home, so that part is nice. Beyond that, I haven’t been privy to the festival before so I don’t know what to expect. I’m hoping for good weather, and we’ll play our shows.

25 years ago was the first time I saw Widespread Panic. It was at the first H.O.R.D.E festival. What are your memories of that experience?

At the time, H.O.R.D.E. was unique because all the bands got together and decided, no pun intended, to band together and create a festival. It didn’t come from the outside. It wasn’t a promoter with an idea. We were all touring. We were all trying to do what we could as single acts out there and, at the time, we said, let’s try to do something collectively that’s bigger than all of us on our own. So, that was really neat. Especially, that first year. I think we did four shows in the North and four shows in the South. We kept the ticket price down and tried our best to fill-up larger venues with a kind-of festival atmosphere. I think it worked pretty well.

For me and many others, that first H.O.R.D.E. festival was the first chance for fans in the Northeast to see Widespread Panic. When you look at the bill of a festival you’re playing, are you hoping for chances to see groups you haven’t seen before or are you looking for chances to reconnect?

Whether it’s folks you know or folks you don’t know, and if you have time to go and watch—a lot of times you don’t have time, you might just say hi behind the stage, as long as it’s genuine, and not posing, just remember that you are all there for the same purpose: to put on a show. Then, no matter what’s happening onstage or offstage, that’s usually what makes it fun. I love to see stuff I’ve never seen before. And, I love to see cats that we don’t get to see a lot because everybody’s working. If I get to see Tedeschi Trucks Band, wow, that’s great, because I wouldn’t get to see them in my regular life. If we cross paths on tour, that’s a big bonus.
Does headlining a festival, knowing you’re culminating a day of 10-plus hours of music for your audience in some cases, affect how you construct a set?

I’d say, no. We put things together in a way that feels like it would flow and feel good to us. The songs should work together and move along together. But, in an outdoor show, there will probably be fewer slow, thoughtful songs. Hopefully, they are all thoughtful, but we try to keep the energy up with the tempo of the tunes. If we get in a groove, and do what we’re doing and it’s working, that’s the important thing. It’s letting the dog wag the tail. You can overthink this stuff a lot, and it usually doesn’t get you into a good place if you do.

Any hints as to what you’ll be playing?

We make an effort to, maybe, revisit some songs we haven’t played in a long time, or bring in new material as it pops up. We don’t do it to the extent that it will spoil the flow. With the number of songs we have and the number of shows we’re doing, there is the risk of things falling by the wayside. So, you make a slightly conscious effort to avoid losing all your children.

Does the artist that precedes you at a festival ever affect the attitude when you play? Is it competitive? Inspiring?

I think you hit it on the head. If you go out and see a band before you for a few songs, and they’re cooking, it’s inspirational. Basically, you have to remember to go out with the tools you have at hand, the way you know how to be, and do your best. Be who you are. So, no, on competition. Through the years, I’ve seen the feeling of competition pop-up in ourselves, but that seems to be more for the sports realm. It doesn’t seem to help the music at all. If we are at our best, we remember to cheer each other on.

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