30 Years Of Widespread Panic Means 30 Years Of Setlists


This year marks the 30th anniversary of Widespread Panic’s formation and JamBase senior writer Chad Berndtson recently spoke with members of the band for a full feature being published Thursday. Each day leading up to its publication, we’ll be sharing portions of Chad’s chats with the members of Panic, starting today with frontman John Bell. The guitarist gave insight on how the band has formulated setlists over the past three decades, here’s what JB had to say.

The underrated Widespread Panic documentary from 2002 The Earth Will Swallow You has a lengthy segment addressing how Panic comes up with its setlists night after night. Specifically, the late Garrie Vereen walks viewers through a master setlist, color-coded with dry erase markers and coordinated with the cities the band is playing in, the idea being not to repeat songs from the previous three nights on tour.

It’s an oddly fascinating exercise to watch for something so inherently mundane, but it’s also the building blocks under what, for a band as varied as Panic, is a fundamental part of its currency as a live act: the elements of surprise and delight in both individual song selection and how those songs are organized, and in many cases blended, to form a full show. (A Panic dilettante, for example, would probably have had just as much fun and fascination during the recent tour-closing Chicago run, even though it would take a decorated veteran to know that the May 5 concert was the first time since 1986 that the band opened a show with David Bromberg’s “Sharon.”)

And 30 years into Panic’s life as a band, the process hasn’t changed all that much, according to frontman John “JB” Bell.

“We try to avoid repeating too much, and we try to visit as much of the catalog as we can. That’s pretty much it,” he said. “Maybe we get to a point where we say, you know, screw it, we played it last night and now we’re going to play it again, but we’ve also never really done that in 30 years.”

Unlike other bands who rely on benevolent dictatorship by one or two members when it comes to what’s going to be played when, the setlist discussion among the members of Widespread Panic is democratic, where best ideas win out and everyone’s inspiration is allowed time to air.

“One of us will have an inspiration and put a setlist together,” said Bell. “Or, we might do it together, and everyone looks at it and chimes in if they feel comfortable, or, if they have a different inspiration, they suggest and we say, let’s do that. The key is to have a setlist together by soundcheck so we know what we’re going to focus on.”

Getting the setlist in workable form that early, JB says, is the only thing that’s changed much for Panic’s setlist process in recent years.

“We need to have it early in the day. We have Duane [Trucks] and Jimmy [Herring] and we like to look at stuff together and sometimes refresh our memories,” he said.

The band members don’t exercise much veto power, either.

“No one really says I’d really like to see this song in there and definitely not that one,” he said. “Our world is built a lot more on inspiration than retraction.”

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