It’s noon on a mid-September Friday, and John Bell has overslept. The phone rings, and it’s time to go to work. A few hours later, after this phone interview with Charleston Scene (conducted from bed in his Memphis hotel room), Bell will head over to the venue for Widespread Panic’s first show of a two-week run that ends this weekend with two nights in Charleston.
If you go
What: Widespread Panic with Umphrey’s McGee.
When: Friday and Saturday, gates open at 5 p.m. with the show starting at 6 p.m. both nights
Where: Family Circle Magazine Stadium, 161 Seven Farms Drive, Daniel Island
These concerts mark a special return to the Lowcountry for Widespread Panic, which is revered by fans nationwide but especially in the Southeast as a hallmark of the outdoor touring season.
Despite efforts to get Widespread Panic back out under the stars, the band last played outdoors in Charleston in 1998 at Riley Park. Plans by promoters in 2010 to host the band at Patriots Point and then at the fairgrounds in Ladson had to be scrapped, instead moving back to the usual venue, the North Charleston Coliseum, a setting the band has played 14 times since 1999.
“Now we just pray to the weather gods and hope things work out OK,” says Bell. “Rain and cold can definitely be a factor this time of year.”
Even unseasonal weather likely wouldn’t deter the band’s Charleston fans, who scooped up all of the Family Circle Magazine Stadium’s floor level tickets within hours of going on sale.
Widespread Panic devoted most of 2012 to a hiatus from its typically constant touring schedule and has not performed in Charleston since October 2010. For Bell, that time off didn’t pan out like he’d hoped. After his brother-in-law suffered a stroke, he spent many of his days at the hospital.
“I’m glad I was at home during that time so that I could be helpful as a family member,” says Bell. “I planned on hanging some pictures and doing this and that and taking things really slow, and I ended up just in the thick of things. But you never know what’s going to happen, and that is the life of Widespread Panic, even on stage.”
Finding a melody
The band’s latest studio album, “Dirty Side Down,” is now three years old, begging the question of when the band will debut new songs. Bell is the band’s primary songwriter, and without the idle time he expected in 2012, new songs have been slow to emerge on the tour thus far in 2013. The band did debut pianist JoJo Hermann’s “On This Mountain Side” at Colorado’s Red Rocks in June.
“We haven’t really even talked about it (a new album),” says Bell. “I’ve got a lot of notes but I haven’t actually put songs together. But, shoot, we go into the studio and put stuff together. If we decide we’re going to scratch out some time to record, we’re going to write songs. There’s no big deal there. It’s just a matter of, ‘Do you want to spend your time like this?’ and ‘Where’s the money coming from?’ and blah, blah, blah; all the same stuff.”
In the meantime, members have focused on improving their sound, even after a quarter-century as a band. Before the hiatus, the band embarked on an unplugged “Wood” tour, an experience that forced members to rethink the dynamics of each song.
“At first, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to pull off filling a room with sound, just playing acoustically,” Bell describes. “Then we realized — and I don’t know if we talked about it or did it on purpose — that we don’t have to go loud or get soft for dynamics. We just pull it back and then play a little harder when we want to bring it a little more in your face.
“That was a nice realization, and in the electric set, we’ve brought back that chance of breathing, where it doesn’t rely just on volume but on musical presence and that kind of thing.”
Likewise, Bell has been giving extra attention to the detailed nuances of his singing voice, ever since the band’s long-time producer and collaborator John Keane suggested that Bell think about “melody” in his delivery.
“It’s never mattered to me, especially with the songs that I write. The lyrics are about the words; they aren’t about the sounds that were coming out,” explains Bell. “He showed me that in the studio, I’m singing all over the place. But some other folks, in their songs, they kind of have a melody that’s part of the song, and the words flow with the way the music flows.”
Bell says that Keane’s comment wasn’t a criticism but it planted a seed that made the singer aware of the intonation in his voice.
“I was like, ‘The power of the music is in the words, not the notes,’ and for me, I sing the way I play guitar, with notes and movement and emphasis on the shape of the sounds the way it came out. But it wasn’t necessarily melodic; it’s more percussive than it is note-conscious,” Bell admits. “The next thing you know, I’m singing more melodically. But I’m not choosing one melody. I sing a different melody every day.”
Shaping the song
The exceptions to Bell singing a varied melody are when he takes on a cover song where the lyrical melody is integral to the song, like Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross.”
“When we do covers, you learn and hear a song for the first time and you do it that way, and it’s almost like you pull a Rich Little and you actually re-enact that as best you can,” says Bell. “Even to the extent of Neil Young and Vic Chesnutt songs, it’s hard to capture the words without using their voice a little bit to actually sing the words and sing the song the way they did. After you do that for a while, the next thing you know, your own voice is coming through and it washes out the old voice. You find your own way to express yourself through that song, and hopefully with as much power as they delivered it with in the beginning.”
Like the Grateful Dead before them, Widespread Panic fans often find themselves introduced to new songwriters through the songs the band covers, Chesnutt among them.
The band’s first album, 1988’s “Space Wrangler,” included the J.J. Cale song “Travelin’ Light.” When Cale passed away in July, Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools posted a homage on the band’s website that included an admission that he’d been unfamiliar with the original version of the song when the band recorded it.
“JB played me the original recording and I was shocked at how different it was from our reading,” wrote Schools. “Cale’s was light and nimble and ours was bombastic and ponderous. Yet it somehow still worked. That’s another thing about a great song, it can be dressed in any costume and still be effective.”
Bell says that, on stage, he still fluctuates between Panic’s and Cale’s versions of the songs. “Sometimes, just for kicks, I mimic J.J. Cale’s way of doing it: really light and whispery.”
September also marked a special collaboration for Widespread Panic when the band joined forces with John Fogerty in Virginia for a set of Creedence Clearwater Revival classics.
“His tunes are so iconic,” says Bell, emphasizing that the logical approach with Fogerty’s material is to play it straightforward. “It’s not like we can embrace the song and improve upon it; they’re so well-developed that they don’t lend a lot to making it your own kind of thing. But we might keep playing them just for kicks, because ... it’s supposed to be about having fun.”
Widespread Panic’s members have begun to reach their 50s, making time to reboot all the more important to their longevity. But Bell says it’s “pretty much the same” on tour as it has been for decades.
“You do your math and come to the show and go to work, and everything’s cool. I can’t say that we were ever too wild; probably at one point, but it’s been a long time,” says Bell, adding that the red Solo cup he’s sipping on-stage these days is strictly water. “It used to be beer, and before that it was liquor, but that’s all gone by the wayside now. It’s great, I get my allotment of water for the day on stage. We keep ourselves in relatively good shape.”
Bell also emphasizes that he’s excited to have Umphrey’s McGee on board for the Charleston shows. Although both groups get pegged as jam bands, their sound and approach are vastly different.
“They are their own entity. They’re not an anything band, they’re Umphrey’s,” says Bell. “They’re a rock and roll band with blues and jazz influences. I don’t think that ‘jam band’ tag is going to stick 10 years from now.”
Most importantly, Bell says he’s glad to have a band opening that will bring the crowd inside on time.
“People are going to come out of the parking lot and see them, instead of just waiting around,” says Bell, who has sat in with Umphrey’s McGee on several occasions. “They’re great guys who play great music. We’ll have fun with them.”
The band’s excitement is surpassed only by the enthusiasm of its audience. After a three-year wait, expect a warm welcome for a well-rested Bell and company when Widespread Panic takes the stage this weekend.