By Hap Fry
Whenever John Bell needs confirmation on where his Widespread Panic bandmates and he rest on the Red Rocks’ food chain, all the soulful frontman needs to do is peek inside his closet.
“I just took a hoodie out of my closet that said ‘45’ on it,” Bell said during a recent interview with The Marquee from his Georgia residence. “I bet you that was a gift from promoter Bill Bass, so that’s how I can confirm that it’s 45.”
The number, of course, signifies the number of consecutive sold-out shows Widespread Panic has played at the famed Colorado venue. It’s a number that far exceeds that of any other band, and concert numbers 46 through 48 will come later this month, but Bell still remembers the first as much as any other with the beloved venue.
“I love Red Rocks,” said Bell, who is better known to his legion of fans as ‘JB.’ “I think our first time out there was with Blues Traveler (1991). You know, it’s a venue you always hear about. It’s a gas. Nothing beats the first time you play there.”
But in addition to adding to the record, Bell and his Panic cohorts have other reasons to be excited this year. He confirmed the group is slated to put out a new album in September, which will mark the band’s first studio release since Dirty Side Down in 2010. Bell said that there may still be some surprises when the album does emerge, but for the most part, the band started peppering the songs into the setlists early this spring, anxious to share their new stories.
“We’ve done so many records and tried so many angles of approach that this time, we just said: ‘We want to play the songs, so we’ll just start playing,’” Bell said.
Playing their material live before it’s released is nothing new for Panic, but Bell said there have been definitive shifts over their career with regards to test driving the songs on stage before minting them in the studio, and that in the early days they would never think of waiting for an album.
“That was in the very beginning,” Bell said. “Then, when Mike (Houser) passed away, and we did the next record — which was called Ball — things kind of shifted into more of a form of doing the writing on the road and backstage and polishing things up in the studio, basically waiting for the album to come out before we played them on stage. That form kind of held together for a while, but these are our little babies so we want to let them out to get some air and some sunshine. We don’t want them to look like those kids from the movie: ‘The Others.’”
Consider the last line vintage JB. While he may be known as the frontman for Panic, Bell’s one-liners are legendary among fans. There is even a Facebook page dedicated to Bell’s “JBisms” titled appropriately “Shit JB Says.”
“(They’re) extremely random, and I never gave any thought to it until somebody mentioned them,” he said. “If something pops into my head, and I want to share it then I do. Sometimes, I think it’s quiet enough to where I think just the band might be able to hear me. But that’s what everybody does right?” Perhaps. But probably not with the panache that Bell’s quips pack.
But it’s not all jokes and sold-out shows in the Panic world these days. For the first time in years one of the band’s members isn’t on the road with them. Duane Trucks of the Hard Working Americans has been filling in for drummer Todd Nance since the Fall 2014 tour. Nance has been away from the band tending to “personal matters,” according to the band’s official release. Various internet reports however claim those matters “are not limited to food, drugs and alcohol.”
Despite that shake up though it appears that every other cylinder in the Widespread Panic engine is firing at full compression. The new material that should find its way on the upcoming record has been well received and reviewed by fans and critics. “I’ve heard good things, and that’s nice to hear,” Bell said. “But basically, we do it for ourselves and hope that leaks over to everybody else’s intrigue and enjoyment.”
And one of the possible reasons why their material resonates so deeply with so many is that it grows organically out of an always changing approach. Bell said the band takes many different avenues in writing and coming up with new songs. “It goes all across the board,” he said. “Some things were created from scratch right there in the studio, and other things were something you mess around with at home and then bring in and the boys go to work and add their touches. There’s no real sacred territory there. It’s a great balance to what we do on the road. You go in there, and you’re in a studio situation and you come up with different sounds and different ideas and just playing things multiple times to familiarize yourself with them before you get the take that you want to use — and it’s all new stuff that you want to use.”
Bell was a mere three days away from meeting up with his bandmates, Col. Bruce Hampton and Bloodkin to play a gig in Orange Beach, Ala., when he was interviewed, but the impending trek and the summer tour that will start mid-month, didn’t seem to phase Bell at all. In fact, he spoke as if he had an entire summer of leisure planned. “Today, I’m going to put some cages around my tomatoes,” he said. “I’m going to weed a little bit until it becomes a pain in the ass, drink a lot of water and probably go to the junkyard – for recycling and putting stuff in its proper place.”
For many, Widespread Panic at Red Rocks is the proper way to kick off the summer. And while nothing in life is certain, fans should bank on Panic being back at Red Rocks next year to celebrate a 50th consecutive sold out show, and Bell receiving another memento to commemorate the occasion.
“We’re just champing right along,” Bell said. “I don’t know about direction. It’s kind of like a drunken kitten, but we’ll go wherever that inspiration shows itself.”
Red Rocks Amphitheatre
June 26, 27 and 28
Go If You Dig:
- Allman Brothers Band
- Grateful Dead
- Gov’t Mule