By Caroline Fontein
Southern rock jam band Widespread Panic is celebrating their 25th anniversary and making a stop in Vegas. The group formed in Athens, Ga. in 1986 and remains one of the top American jam bands touring today. As part of their 25th anniversary tour, Widespread Panic is making a stop at The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel on July 15 – 16.
Unlike other groups who get a huge fan following from No. 1 radio hits, Widespread Panic earned their fan base through their incredible live shows. They’re known for their ever-changing set list when they perform. They usually don’t decide what songs they are going to do until right before a show. They also bring a sense of improvisation and surprise to their songs. Fans never know what they are going to hear from Widespread Panic and how a familiar song might sound when the group performs it live.
Widespread Panic has amassed a loyal fan following as a result of their legendary live performances. As of 2010, they hold the record for number of sold-out performances at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colo. with 35 shows and at the Philips Arena in Atlanta with 17 shows.
The band began touring in 1987 performing at bars and fraternities. That same year they recorded their first album, “Space Wrangler.” The album contained the songs “Chilly Water,” “Travelin’ Light,” “Space Wrangler,” “Coconut,” “The Take Out,” “Porch Song” “Stop-Go” and “Driving Song.” After the release, the group started touring additional venues in Texas, Colorado, the West Coast and internationally in Vancouver, Canada. Widespread has continued to release both studio and live albums.
The group is often compared to other well-known traveling groups including Phish and the Grateful Dead.VEGAS.com had an opportunity to speak with Widespread Panic singer/guitarist John Bell about the group’s upcoming show in Vegas and the secret behind their success as one of the most prolific touring groups in the industry today.
What can audiences expect to hear from Widespread Panic at your show in Vegas?
“We don’t even know that. You know we think about it the day of the show. We always try to avoid some of the songs that we’ve recently played. So, we keep the song list fresh, and we just go from there. But you can expect rock ‘n’ roll.”
What do you enjoy doing in Vegas when you’re not performing?
“It usually depends on if we have a day off. This time we do not have a day off, but my wife’s coming up so we’ll have a little bit of time on show dates to just chill out.”
Do you have any favorite things that you like to do in Vegas when you do have time off?
“(Laughs) Yeah, it’s pretty geeky, but I like to going over to the Star Trek Exhibit.”
Unfortunately, it closed. However, there’s supposed to be a Star Wars exhibit opening in Vegas.
“Oh, that’s that other crowd. Yeah, Laura (his wife) and I were [at the Star Trek Exhibit] right when it first opened. You know, I was kind of surprised it stayed as long as it did.”
Your band has had phenomenal success as a touring act. Why do you think that is?
“I reckon because people come out to see us, and I think that’s because, well for one, our sets are very different from night to night. Some touring acts play a scripted out list of songs, and that’s what they play from town to town. It would be like doing the same play night after night. We don’t do that. It’s a different combination of songs every night. Our approach to the music is a little more exploratory, based on improvisation and personal inspiration and all those songs will vary within themselves from night to night depending upon our collective mood. Bottom line I think there’s some folks out there that like to see music like that, something that’s going to surprise them.”
Back to what you were saying about the group’s collective mood and how the songs can change every night, are you able to do that because the group has been playing together for so long?
“Yeah, I think so. That’s the way we’ve always done things from the very beginning. Really it’s the only way we know.”
Unlike a lot of other acts out there today, Widespread Panic doesn’t oppose fans taping and distributing your live shows. Why is that?
“Well historically, we’ve always let it happen because in the beginning it didn’t really matter. We didn’t have a record out or anything like that. Back in the mid ’80s, it was good for us because people would get to share that music and turn their friends on. So next time you came around through town, more people than usual might know about your band because they’ve listened to some of these homemade tapes. So that was a positive right out of the get go. Then it was kind of a privilege that we didn’t feel was appropriate to take away from the kids. Now we release all of our live shows like a day after we perform them in a fairly reasonable paperless download. We actually do videos like that too… The tapers, they played their role and now we’re in that same game too. It’s just keeping up with the times as far as technology goes. We do it because it’s possible. At the same time, we still let people do their own taping because that’s one way that some people come to enjoy a show, is to be their own little engineers.”
Has performing for you changed over the years?
“No. I can’t say that it has. We put the songs together and then go out and see what happens.”
What does the group have to do to prepare for going on tour?
“We have a room set up with small versions of our instrumentation backstage, and if we have a song writing idea, we’ll sit down and mess with it together. Or if we have a song that we’re not all fully familiar with whether it’s one of our songs that we haven’t played in a long time or if somebody has an idea to play a new cover or something like that.”
With 25 years of touring under your belt, what continues to inspire you to perform today?
“Oh, just ’cause it’s still fun. It is inspirational what happens on stage because there are a lot of surprises… Even though we’re there doing it, the nature of the way we approach it, we get surprised. Usually those are good surprises. So that’s fun. It’s a way of life. We’ve been doing it for 25 years, so it’s kind of all we know.”
What’s next for Widespread Panic?
“After the beginning of 2012, we’ll be wrapping it up and taking some time off to recharge our batteries and give the people a break too… We’ve done it before in the past; it was probably seven years ago or something like that. We took a year off. It was really interesting to step away from the music for a little bit.”
During that time off are you still writing music and jotting down lyrics or do you really take the whole year off and not work on anything?
“Well, you definitely write. The only difference is there’s no feeling of pressure or responsibility. You’re probably not as collaborative during that time. You get to explore music on your own a little bit without anything impeding or infringing on your process. You get to do songwriting for fun and work in your own studio and just goof around. That’s really a neat atmosphere. When we’re together on the road, we’re constantly in collaborative mode. Usually we’re setting up to write the next record and stuff like that.”
It seems like it would be neat to get some time on your own to work on things that you wanted to work on.
“Really the process isn’t different. You just sit down and you go, ‘Well I could be reading a book, I could be watching TV, writing a song, going fishing.’ You wake up every morning knowing that it’s your call, whatever you feel like doing. That’s a really good feeling of freedom.”