We live in a fast-paced world - a day of instant everything and drive-thru anything. These are not patient times, and we rarely find moments for reflection. We used to work 40 hours, now we work 50. We used to sleep for eight, now we're lucky to nail down six. Never has time moved more quickly. Perhaps that's why the 15-month break that Widespread Panic took flashed past us in what felt like a single breath. Not only is the break over, the band has already completed two tours, including stops at Red Rocks, Bonnaroo, and a slew of other premier locations. You might say it's like they never left - but you'd be wrong. This is not the same band that put down their instruments for the first time in their career after New Year's Eve at the end of 2003. Nor is this the same band that was anchored by the Telecaster of Michael Houser. The past few years have been a constant evolution. Every show, every song, George McConnell (who replaced Houser after pancreatic cancer took his life on 8/10/02) becomes more familiar to both the band and their audience. Like JB told me in his Chicago hotel room, "I just have to remind myself that it took me a long time to get to that feeling. It might take a little while to... to break in that new pair of shoes." I know it's difficult, but we need to be patient.
There are fans that can't seem to connect with the band's sound anymore. The more traditional guitar work of McConnell has left some without their wings. But if you spend enough time around the band, you will also hear some "newer" fans talking about how they "finally get it with Panic." As they say, different strokes for different folks. But regardless of what side of the fence you sit on, or even if you've never cared to be involved with the Panic discussion, if you simply pass over this band with whatever preconceived notion you have, then you are falling victim to our country's ADD obsession. This is passionate, gritty rock and roll being created by six talented, humble musicians. Sure, there are certain subtleties that will be lost on the casual observer, and yes, there are changes in the music that will make it difficult for those who once flocked to Houser's guitar, but this is genuine music that is taking on a new life. You just need to pay attention.
You see, while the world may not be patient, Widespread Panic is. They've been doing this for over 20 years. They haven't yet "hit it big," and the endorsement deals haven't bought mansions for the members. While the music is based around solid blue-collar songs, it's the instrumental heights and improvisational patience that have made Panic one of the most important bands of the past two decades.
With the band back from their break and back on their feet, the music world ticks towards Halloween. Of all the days we recognize, Halloween may very well be the most important show Panic plays all year, or at least the most anticipated. To add a bit more fuel to the fire, not only will Panic be playing to a sold-out Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas on Halloween, they'll also be a headliner at the inaugural Vegoose festival the day before. With all this in mind, we figured it was high time to sit down with the band and reacquaint ourselves.
John Bell by Fred Rice
A few moons ago, I flew to Chicago to meet with Widespread Panic's front man, John Bell. The story of this band has read like a Hollywood script: two college buddies start a band, they work hard, find success, become a pillar in the music world, lead guitarist dies, all hell breaks loose, a good friend steps in to help out, they take a break, they come back with a revamped sound, and the Second Set begins. That's where we are today. We are witnessing the Return of Widespread Panic. This is why I packed my bags and waited for my airplane. I had questions, JB had answers.
When he entered the room, time slowed a bit. I no longer felt the rush of traffic or the pace of the city that led me to this point. The large stone that hung from a silver chain around JB's neck immediately caught my eye. We exchanged pleasantries and talked small for a moment, but it was clear we both had business to attend to, so we quickly got down to it.