by Jonathan Stumpf
Originally ran in the June issue of Soundboard Magazine, Boulder, CO
For John Bell, life is grand. “Things are pretty cool,” he says in his characteristic Southern laid-back drawl, calling from his hotel room in Charlotte, North Carolina. And understandably so: last night his band performed to over 15,000 people at Charlotte’s Cityfest and was joined by renown keyboardist Bruce Hornsby; on June 19th, his band will be releasing their seventh, and possibly toughest, studio album Don’t Tell the Band on a new record label; the album’s release will fall one week into their two-month long U.S. summer tour that includes five nights in Colorado—three June dates at Red Rocks, which sold-out in ten minutes, and two August dates in Larkspur; and most importantly, Bell is getting back into golf.
“That is actually why I was late. I was just doing an interview with Maximum Golf magazine,” says Bell following with an apology in true Southern fashion. But for Bell’s golf game, unlike his band, it needs some work. “Man, it’s struggling,” he says with a bit of a laugh. “I shoot between 85 and 105. It just depends on how many balls I spank out of bounds. I used to play fairly well when I was in high school but I quit for about fifteen years and now I am just getting back into it.”
And while Bell’s past fifteen years may have been devoid of golf, it has provided him time to pursue other gratifying activities—mainly his Athens, Georgia based band Widespread Panic (Bell, Michael Houser, Dave Schools, John “JoJo” Hermann, Todd Nance and Domingo Ortiz).
Currently, Bell and the band are undergoing a sort of renaissance. In just over six months, they have joined forces with a new record label and revamped their entire sound and light crew. At the same time, they have maintained, if not improved, their powerful blend of southern rock, as exhibited on their much anticipated upcoming studio album.
It was after last year’s summer tour that Widespread Panic “hooked up with some new folks,” says Bell, referring to the new sound and light crew. “It is a tender subject because everybody was our friends and there were no hard feelings, it was just another step. It was one of those things where our business and friendship collided. It was basically a managerial decision based on business, but with our blessings.”
Although the fresh crew has already undergone a fall and spring tour, they will be put to test this summer in the various outdoor amphitheatres across the country as inclement weather and the expansiveness of outdoor arenas can be catalysts to sound problems. Assuredly, he adds, “The feedback we have gotten is that things are sounding pretty good. And we trust what we hear in email,” he finishes with a light-hearted laugh.
Following in the footsteps of their newly established relationship in the live arena—which has already been deemed rather successful—Widespread Panic has recently entered into a new record deal with Sanctuary Records. The hunt for a suitable label to call home took some time, but Bell seems rather pleased. “Sometimes you go into a position where you’re not feeling anxious about signing a deal or signing with the wrong people. We got to look around a lot and these folks at Sanctuary are very cool.”
“Now there is a machine in Europe that can help out,” confirms Bell, whose new label is based out of London. “In our previous relationship with Capricorn Records, it was a bit of a stretch to have a presence over there.”
And while Widespread Panic is undergoing a rebirth in business dealings, their upcoming Don’t Tell The Band exhibits a musical renaissance with a rougher edge that is illustrative of how they have nailed down studio meticulousness.
It was 1998’s live Light Fuse, Get Away that revealed the truth to the masses about their improvisational abilities. 1999’s 'Til The Medicine Takes was presented as more of a song album; a costume party visiting the different personalities in the band that really didn’t challenge their musical integrity.
With Don’t Tell The Band, Widespread Panic teamed up with production wizard John Keane ('Til The Medicine Takes, R.E.M., Indigo Girls) and got down to business. The final product is a true representation of southern rock presented in a massive, energetic and raucous style that can blow away a crowd but at the same time exhibit all the genuineness and gracefulness instilled through southern hospitality. “Precision is largely where John comes in and starts cracking the whip,” says Bell with obvious appreciation for Keane’s production accuracy.
“Being a songy album,” continues Bell, “it picks up in the same kind of mode 'Til The Medicine Takes was. As far as the tone of it goes, it’s got a little harder edge to it in some places and probably a little more toughness in it. And of course,” he adds, “some humor. Humor’s good.”
Addressing the band’s approach to the recording of the new album, Bell reveals entertainment and excitement as two essential factors. “What we work on for a large part is to maintain an environment where we can be creative and come up with stuff that is new and exciting to us. We try to keep it like that so it’s not like a job even though there are many elements where you have to “act like a professional.”
And Bell’s vocal approach to the songs isn’t confined to just the studio. “I will go home and listen to a rough mix that has no vocals and I’ll decide on the phrasing I want to use. Just kind of sing to it in the car while I am driving back and forth to Athens,” he reveals.
“As far as the songwriting goes, you want that to be as open and adventuresome as an environment can be,” expresses Bell. “When you have been together as long as we have, you claim it as a collective process. It is not really fair to individualize where the inspiration is coming from. You can and we do, but that is within our own family. We'll take inspiration from wherever it comes. Good songs aren't always easy to come by. The songs just come out of you, and it's nice not to have to force them.”
With each song that Bell pens and performs, an initial influence lent him the needed musical inspiration for those tunes to transpire. It was prior to his transplanting down to Athens and acquiring all the personality and musical characteristics of a Southerner that Bell spent his schoolboy years soaking up the sounds of the Cleveland radio waves. “The bulk of my influence was in Cleveland, ‘cause those were the growing up years. For the most part, I started listening to what the charts were doing on AM radio and then we had a station out of Canada that was heavy Motown stuff. That was seeping in and my parents would let me listen to the radio as late as I wanted to.” He finishes graciously in his gruff tone, “I was a lucky little kid.”
Jump forward to high school where Bell had a short stint in his high school’s jazz band as a bass player that he recollects as nothing more than “goofing around.” The switch back to guitar turned him toward his current musical direction. “I started playing with my friends senior year sitting around in kind of a folkie atmosphere, playing guitars and singing together. Then when I got to Georgia, I just took it another step.”
That next step took Bell into his first “paid” gig as a musician. “I played at a couple of open mic nights. All the good people were gone the second time I played, so I got to win the twenty bucks that night,” he recalls with a chuckle. “And [I] just kept trying it out from there. A little bit of confidence, asking for gigs, and just playing.”
But satisfaction as a solo performer ultimately lost its luster. “At the time, I was so sick of playing by myself without being able to share that with somebody on stage. I was crying for companionship in that world.”
Eventually he met up with the remainder of the band and as the adage goes, the rest is history. “It came together very slowly,” says Bell, remembering the process in a more subjective manner. “What they call organically, whatever the fuck that means. We liked each other, so that’s how it came together. It wasn’t like ‘Hey, we need this guy, ‘cause he’s great.’ It was like ‘There is a personality thing cooking here, so let’s build on that and let that be the fuel for the music.’”
With a strong personality bond that supplied ample fuel for their musical fire, things began to take hold for Widespread Panic as the ’80s came to a close. Gigs in their hometown were getting larger. Tours were becoming more frequent. And above all this, a lifelong musical and personal friendship was in the works.
A band from the Northeast called Little Women—who has since disbanded—was using the same booking agent as Widespread Panic. Through this mutual business association, it became commonplace for the bands to open for one another in their respected regions.
“They had a good niche carved out over in the Northeast,” recalls Bell with a certain amount of respect. “They asked us to come along in a very one-big-family-kind-of-feeling-way to open up a bunch of shows for them in the Baltimore, D.C. area. Then we hooked up and did some stuff down South. We just shared markets and had each other open in our designated hometown territories.”
It was Little Women who first exposed Widespread Panic to their soon-to-be home out west when they brought them along to Colorado for a spring tour back in March of 1990.
Former Little Women member Jerry Joseph recounts their introduction. “We ended up on the same gig with them at the Chestnut Cabaret in Philadelphia,” says Joseph from his home in Portland. “We walked in the door and they were just really cool to us.”
He continues to unravel the details about their first night out as friends, a New York City evening, nearly 11 years ago. “We were playing in New York and they had a night off so we ended up in town together. I remember Todd saying something like ‘I want to do something that is really New York. I want to go on the subway or something.’ I was like, ‘dude.’ So, I took them to do stuff that was really New York. We had this really cool night hanging out. I just remember this sort of wild night in the late ‘80s. I remember going to a club in the Lower East Side and it was this wild, funny night.” In retrospect, Joseph adds with a laugh, “It may have been the cause of all of our problems as the years went down.”
Always the humble guy, Joseph is “just flattered that they play them.” When questioned, though, he does share a particular memory that sticks out regarding a Widespread Panic performance with one of his songs. “I have to say that standing in New Orleans watching those guys play “Climb To Safety” two years ago was a pretty cool memory. I was standing at the back of the Lakefront Arena and it was a trip ‘cause the kid next to me was like ‘Get out of my way, man. This is my song.’”
Photo By Ashley Melin
|Regardless of any future problems that night may have initiated, the musical relationship established that evening is one that has proved to be a symbiotically genuine partnership.
“There has been this thread throughout and somewhere in there, those guys got huge,” says Joseph. “And since then, they have always been really nice to me whether it was in Little Women or now with the Jackmormons.”
“Basically, from there we have kept in touch with Jerry,” says Bell. “We have always just really dug his music. There is just a big respect we have for his performance and songwriting abilities.” Enough to even cover a couple of his tunes. While Joseph tunes like “Chainsaw City” and “North” occasionally appear in Widespread Panic’s live repertoire, his anthemic “Climb To Safety” was released on ‘Til The Medicine Takes and is a common staple in many of their shows.
And Joseph’s songwriting association with Widespread Panic sometimes extends to their concerts where he can occasionally be found sitting in for a song or two. From what he describes, it is an entirely new performance level.
He quickly rattles off another memory. “Playing with those guys in fucking New York City last summer was one of my favorite gigs in my life because the band was smoking. I love it when I stand on stage with those guys and I am scared. Sitting in with those guys is such a rush because it is like trying to ride a buffalo,” shares an enthusiastic Joseph. “You don’t know whether to grab the horns or the fur.”
And on a personal note he adds, “I have had a lot of great moments with them. A recent one for me is seeing Schools clean and happy in New York City.”
If the kind words spoken about each other’s musical talent don’t say enough about their amicable and authentic music relationship, Bell lends a word about Joseph as a friend. “In conversation, his openness, his candidness and honesty. He’s not trying to fill me full of bullshit when we are talking. It’s ‘boom,’ right there. And he likes getting to the heart of things. He likes to go deep and I like that.”
With a reminiscing laugh he adds, “We got some stories, too, man.”
Querying Joseph for a good story that Bell speaks of, he only laughs and says, “None that I can tell you!” But he does reveal a sincere amount of gratitude for the appreciation and support that Bell and Widespread Panic has shown him through the years. Citing an earlier example before his days of sobriety, Joseph clearly realizes the importance of their true friendship.
“I just got out of rehab. It was my first time in and I pretty much flew from rehab to Alabama and was probably sober for about two days.” At the time, Bell was assisting Joseph with the recording of a new album. “We got a pretty good record but the rest of life was pretty grim back then,” recalls Joseph. “He really stuck with me through the following year and stayed my friend, which was pretty huge. They have been really kind to me.”
Continuing on, Joseph adds some more admiration in jest. “I think he wears his mantle really well and manages to do it with a lot of grace. Especially being from Cleveland,” he exclaims. “There is no grace in Cleveland!”
While Cleveland may not be the most graceful city in the United States, it is where Bell’s golf clubs made way for guitars and the simple contemplation about a life in rock and roll was soon paving a path to becoming a reality.
“I daydreamed about it,” says Bell, with a modest response about where he is today. “But just like you daydream about anything when you were a kid. It was one of many daydreams. But I never felt any pressure to do it or make anything of it. Something probably started clicking when I was going out and finding gigs to do as a single and then in the course of that repetition, the music started taking on a different quality, had a different value. It was more then just playing songs once in a while.
“There would be this kind of a feeling that you were—this is really cliché—but it switches over from where you are just playing the songs in front of people to where the songs are playing you. It would flip over so it’s like there is kind of a beat or wave or movement out there and you are just riding it. That was like magical. I was like ‘That’s wacked. It’s like I am jamming with somebody, but I am the only guy here.’ And that feeling translated when I met Mikey and the rest of the guys. We could get on that plane and there was something else out there and we were playing to it.” With a musing of satisfaction he adds, “That was pretty neat.”
JamBase Colorado Correspondent
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