Happy Birthday John Bell: Watch Widespread Panic’s ‘Bombs & Butterflies’ Album Release Party
John Bell celebrates his 59th birthday today. The Widespread Panic frontman and guitarist was born on April 14, 1962 in Cleveland. JB would go on to co-found Widespread Panic in 1986 along with lead guitarist Michael Houser, bassist Dave Schools and drummer Todd Nance while attending the University of Georgia in Athens. JB possesses one of the most instantly recognizable voices in rock, characterized by a seasoned smoky rasp and wide-spanning range that has been at the forefront of Widespread Panic since its inception.
After forming, WSP cut their teeth playing local clubs and parties around Athens. Buoyed by their musical prowess and songwriting skills, the band quickly caught the attention of the local press. Panic would sign with the Atlanta label Landslide Records in 1987 and recorded their first album, Space Wrangler, with the help of producer John Keane, with whom the band would strike up a longtime collaborative relationship. Space Wrangler arrived on February 4, 1988. The album saw contributions from percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz who joined the band full time in 1988/89.
The early 90s saw Panic signing with legendary Georgia label Capricorn Records and releasing their self-titled major label debut in 1991. The band also began expanding their touring radius and eventually joined the famed H.O.R.D.E. tour along with bands like Phish, Blues Traveler and Aquarium Rescue Unit whose leader Col. Bruce Hampton was a mentor for Panic. WSP also welcomed keyboardist JoJo Hermann in early 1992, rounding out the classic lineup. Panic continued their rise in the mid-’90s, releasing the landmark albums Everyday (which cracked the Billboard 200 chart) in 1993 and Ain’t Life Grand in 1994.
In the summer of 1996, JB, WSP and John Keane began prepping Bomb & Butterflies, the band’s fifth studio album. Panic held a release party for the LP on December 28, 1996 at the Morton Theater in Athens. The single set saw the band performing every song from the album beginning with JB — seated on acoustic guitar — leading the group through the Vic Chesnutt-penned “Aunt Avis,” which featured Keane on pedal steel guitar.
Although they would open with the album’s second and third tracks, “Aunt Avis” and “Tall Boy,” after returning to the record’s opening number, “Radio Child,” and performing a pair of covers — Tom Waits “Goin’ Out West” and Talking Heads’ “City of Dreams” — the band would perform the rest of the album including “Rebirtha,” “Gradle,” “Glory,” “Hope In A Hopeless World” (with Keane on pedal steel), “You Got Yours,” “Greta” and “Happy.” Panic brought the evening to a close with the Muddy Waters and Professor Longhair co-write, “Red Beans.”
To celebrate JB’s birthday, watch Widespread Panic’s entire Bombs & Butterflies release party below via the JamBase Live Video Archive:
Setlist (via Everyday Companion)
Set: Aunt Avis* > Tall Boy, Radio Child, Goin’ Out West, City of Dreams*, Rebirtha > Gradle, Glory, Hope In A Hopeless World*, You Got Yours, Greta, Happy > Red Beans
* with John Keane on pedal steel