The big man from Panic sounds off
BY STRATTON LAWRENCE
Columbus Day, President's Day, Widespread Weekend. It's one of those holidays that sneaks up. You don't know exactly when it is, but it's trusty and reliable and it means you get to party. The Widespread Panic gaggle has been flying their migration route for the last 20 years, showing up without fail in Chucktown at least once a year.
Singer/guitarist John "J.B." Bell, drummer Todd Nance, percussionist Domingo Ortiz, keyboardist John "Jo Jo" Hermann, and bassist Dave Schools are touring with newly-enlisted guitarist Jimmy Herring and guest player John Keane (guitar, banjo, mandolin) in support of their first new studio album in three years, Earth To America (Sanctuary).
Mikey Houser, the original guitarist and namesake "Panic" — for the panic attacks he endured — arguably provided Widespread's signature sound. When pancreatic cancer took his life in 2002, many were surprised that the band persevered, even finishing out their tour. It was what Mikey wanted, and Panic has always functioned like a family. A relative unknown, George McConnell, took the helm and respectably cut his chops over a three-year tenure that ended this summer. With a crucial gap to fill in the lineup, the boys turned to Jimmy Herring, a fixture of both the Allman Brothers and the reunited Dead tours. With such a revered guitarist at the helm, even retired Spreadheads might be turning up for this one.
Schools, the thundering, larger-than-life bassist, caught up with City Paper last week for a conversation about life in one of America's most prolific touring bands.
CITY PAPER: This is the first tour with Jimmy. Is it nice having someone else with hair down to their ass on stage with you?
DAVE SCHOOLS: It's great. Jimmy's been a friend for a long time. When he was with the Aquarium Rescue Unit back in the late '80s and '90s, Panic and ARU were a constant fixture. The getting-to-know-the-guy part of having a new person in the band is really minimal because he's been a friend for 15 years. Every night we're seeing new songs broken out, and you know it's evolving by leaps and bounds. It's really a whole lot of fun to be a part of.
CP: Are you playing everything with him, or are you working in songs gradually?
DS: It's kind of actually funny. Jimmy's gone and learned songs that we hadn't been playing and he's right now teaching us how to play stuff we haven't played in six years. We're already working on new originals with Jimmy, which is really what's important to us. With his tenure with the Allman Brothers and the Dead, his improv chops are through the roof. The spaces between the songs that Panic goes to, they're a whole new thing. It's great.
CP: You've said that some of your favorite moments playing with Mikey were going into the drum solo, when it'd be just the two of you out there, and finding those sublime moments. Do you see that happening with Jimmy?
DS: Absolutely. It started happening and it's been so different every night that it's just amazing. His ability to turn things on their side and discover new ways of playing things, it's unlimited. It's a very freeing experience.
CP: It sounds like y'all are having fun.
DS: That's why this whole thing started.
CP: When you were doing Earth to America, you said it was like old times hanging out again, going in to record and then hanging out that night. How much of that vibe carries over on tour? Are you guys hanging out backstage before the shows?
DS: Yeah, that whole recording process of hanging out together and then going back to the same house after the studio session has definitely continued on into the last couple of tours. You know, we're definitely rediscovering the friendships that have been around for a long time.
CP: That family aspect of it all really shows to the fans. Most of your trips to Charleston in the last decade have been at the North Charleston Coliseum. How do you feel about the venue?
DS: I love the place. There's something about the coliseums from that era that are all very similar. Charleston, Hampton in Virginia, the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis ' they're all sort of built in the same time frame in the late '60s, and they all sound really good. I'm sure it was a mistake, because they certainly didn't have studies of electro-acoustics going on at the time, but it seems like a lot of these arenas they build for sports events and with music in mind, they really don't put a lot of thought into what it is going to sound like in this 20,000-seat airplane hanger. Places like the North Charleston Coliseum, they have a warmth to them and they're not all reverberate-y. We've always had a really good time there and we've always thought the sound was really good. We like playing there a lot.
CP: I've seen some of my favorite Panic shows in there.
DS: Well, I love Charleston. I've been coming there since I was a kid. I dated a girl who lived in Charleston and spent a lot of time there.
CP: You know this Charleston show is on Friday the 13th�
DS: Well, I'm not superstitious, but I will have my mojo bag with me.
CP: There'll be some folks hoping you'll drop Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition.'
DS: I can't guarantee anything other than we're gonna have a great time.
CP: The North Mississippi Allstars are opening. Have y'all collaborated much?
DS: We've jammed with them a lot. Luther [Dickinson] has sat in with us a time or two, and Cody [Dickinson] almost always sits in with us. We�ve all known each other a long time, and I would actually go out on a limb and say there's going to be some hot guitar playing going on.
CP: I always like seeing Godzilla on your amp. How do Godzilla and Mothra make you feel, respectively?
DS: Well, he�s not there anymore, but you never know. My Godzillas were given to charitable events for auction. Mothra, frankly, sickens me. The idea of a giant winged creature is somehow less palatable than the idea of a giant reptile.
CP: Last year in Philadelphia, you and [guitarist and long-time panic tech] Sam Holt had a conversation on stage over whether or not you had eaten five or six Philly cheesesteaks before the show. Just hoping for clarification on that to settle a bet�
DS: I can describe last Sunday's contest. Sam won the day, I can tell you that. But we're all trying to look out for our health now. We had Philly cheesesteaks brought over from about four different purveyors of cheesesteakness, and cut them into little pieces and taste-tested them. I think I managed to get one and a half down all total before the show. We're all on a big weight loss kick, so you have to take that in stride. Our cheesesteak stats aren't what they used to be.
CP: Sounds like everyone's focused on the long term.
DS: Yeah, we'd like to still be rocking when we're 60.
CP: In the song 'Second Skin,' J.B. sings, 'I'm about to be born again; this is fear and pride about to brought out into the light.' It does seem like the band's being born again.
DS: I think that that's part of what that song was all about and you can apply that to any stage. If we're doing our job as a creative unit, then, hopefully, we're being reborn every chance we can get, because I'd hate to be stuck in a rut.
CP: This is my favorite album since Til' the Medicine Takes.
DS: Just wait until you hear the next one.