Typically thought of as a Southern rock stylist, Widespread Panic’s John Bell actually traces his roots to Cleveland. It was only after high school that this affable jam-band frontman fled the rust belt and inadvertently launched a career in music.
Things fell together vocationally when Bell decided on the University of Georgia for college. As he recalls, “I wound up down there for school at a time when Athens was such a freak-show. Besides the B-52’s and R.E.M., there were blues guys, country acts and lots of lesser-known, new-wave bands and performance artists. But the cool thing was that there was room for everybody.”
There was even room for the “weirder than average” guitar duo that Bell formed with fellow student Michael Houser. The two men would compose the core of the band that eventually expanded to include Dave Schools, Todd Nance, Jo Jo Hermann and Sunny Ortiz. Once assembled, the guys took on the rather evocative moniker that has served them so well.
“Truth be told, there wasn’t any great thought or deliberation about it,” Bell says of the name. “Mike’s nickname had been Panic … and one night he decided he didn’t just wanna be known as Panic, he wanted to be Widespread Panic. So, when we needed something to put on posters or T-shirts for a gig that was coming up, we just adopted that for the whole group.”
Elongated cover versions of classic rock staples and quirky, multi-genre originals quickly earned WP a reputation as a must-see live act. Gradually, over a number of years, the band’s near-constant touring and friendliness toward the tape-trading scene cemented a bond with concert-goers. Thousands of shows played and seven official live discs are sufficient evidence that this realm really is WP’s strong suit.
But WP has also been respectably prolific in the studio. To date, it has issued nine solid albums of its own and two more in collaboration with Vic Chesnutt.
“As much as we like to tour, we truly love the studio environment,” Bell said. “It’s a gas! It is a totally different process than working live. It is like painting a picture at your leisure in the privacy of your own home and deciding when it is just right and ready to exhibit.”
Throughout its 20-plus years in the music business, WP has certainly grasped the importance of remaining creative and dynamic, not only in terms of its approach to artistic expression but also in regard to technology and, in fact, life itself.
“We have lived through some drastic changes,” Bell says. “Our first recordings were put out on a good old-fashioned 45 (RPM). It sounds crazy now, but we almost didn’t issue Space Wrangler (the band’s debut) on CD because compact discs hadn’t really caught on yet. Records and cassette tapes were still the preferred mediums. Who would’ve ever imagined that we’d have something called file sharing to contend with? But you just gotta roll with it, ’cause technology ain’t gonna stop.
“And it is kind of fun to be in the middle of it all,” Bell continues. “It’s akin to being in a boat at sea. As with most things in this profession, you get to steer your own course to a certain extent, but you still get rocked by the waves.”
Rocked they were, when founding member Michael Houser lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in 2002. At that juncture, WP took its first-ever sabbatical to reflect and re-group. Per Houser’s wishes, they have continued on, at first with long-time friend George McConnell sitting in. Most recently they recruited veteran guitarist Jimmy Herring to help fill the void left by the man whose name lives on through the band he loved so much.
All things considered, Bell is clearly humbled by the group’s longevity and cultural significance, but he says there are enough reasons why Widespread Panic matters to so many people.
“As a band, we have probably lasted as long as we have because what we do is focused on cultivating real relationships based on a common love of music and that, fortunately, is not dependent on something fleeting like physical appearance or dance moves.”
“And most importantly,” Bell concludes, “on a personal level, amongst ourselves there has always been a willingness to get along and to be supportive of each other. Looking back, it’s nice to have been around for so long but we have to just take it one day, one tour at a time.”
Widespread Panic appears Wednesday, April 11, at the Palace Theatre (625 S. Fourth St., 583-4555). Tickets are $39.50. Things get started at 7:30 p.m.
On Friday, you can once again rock ’n’ roll all night with Eddy Metal and his latest hard-rocking showcase. This time the bands include Heaven Hill, Evil Engine #9, Kinsey, Thorn and Hearsay Theory. The show hunkers down at Phoenix Hill Tavern (644 Baxter Ave, 589-4957). Call 636-0405 for more info.
If you are a fan of folk-rock-power-pop, you might want to start your Friday with “Fox in the Morning.” An increasingly popular Lexington-based band, Watson Park, will be on hand to share some songs from its latest LP, Room for Two. Watson Park will play at the Pour Haus (1481 S. Shelby St., 637-9611) for a full set Saturday night. Visit www.myspace.com/pourhaus for more details.
Nashville’s Hotpipes liked Louisville so much that they’re coming back. Fresh off an in-store performance at ear X-tacy last month, Hotpipes plays Thursday at Uncle Pleasant’s (2126 S. Preston St., 634-4147). The Secret opens. Doors at 8 p.m. Rock at 9 p.m. Cover is $5.
Journeyman Willy Porter is on the loose and stops at Mom’s Music (1710 E. 10th St., Jeffersonville, 283-3304) on Friday for a one-of-a-kind show. Porter has appeared on WXPN’s “World Café Live” with David Dye, and has found a fan in none other than the enigmatic siren Tori Amos and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. Porter plays selections from his sixth studio album, Available Light. Tickets are $12 and are still available. Rachael Davis opens. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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