June' 07 Interview with John Bell

John Bell Travelin' Light
by Amy Flurry

for Paste Magazine, Issue 33, June 21 2007 For 22 years, singer/guitarist John Bell has anchored Southern-fried Athens, Ga., jamband Widespread Panic, and—despite his group’s stadium-filling popularity—he’s always eschewed the spotlight. This deference to the whole, parsed through the obscure morsels and spare storytelling he doles out from the stage, has bolstered his enigmatic persona. But when you sit down with Bell for a conversation, the mystique slowly melts away; what’s left is a kindhearted, thoughtful and generous man.

I first meet this reluctant rock star at a restaurant in Atlanta; he needs a little needling to get him talking but, when he does, he gestures with hands, like he’s coaxing words out of the air, rarely resisting an analogy to lasso his disparate thoughts. After our meal, he hands me a manila envelope stuffed with information on Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), the debilitating genetic disease that his goddaughter and niece, Hannah Elliott, 11, has lived with since being diagnosed at 13 months.

When we pick up again, a month later in Athens, Bell and his wife, Laura, are in the process of converting an aging house in the town’s historic corridor into a wellness center. The original idea was to find a place where Laura could base her counseling practice but, now, says Bell, “we’ve [also] included a space for yoga and meditation groups and other workshops and we’ve discussed having guest speakers from time to time.”

Panic for the People
After staying together through two decades of heavy touring—not to mention the loss of close friend/founding member Michael Houser to cancer—Widespread Panic has sold more than three-million albums with minimal radio play. This summer they will co-headline the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival with The Police.

Bell and his bandmates are well aware of the breadth and vigor of their audience, an active and enterprising fanbase that accounts for record-breaking attendance numbers and over 100 sold-out dates per year. With this kind of support, the members of Widespread Panic have long leveraged their success to help those in need: They’ve played charity concerts for Tunes for Tots, a nonprofit that purchases musical equipment for underserved public schools; and Panic Fans for Food, a fundraiser conceived and run by their fans, helps feed the hungry through donations collected at the band’s concerts. But, these days, Bell seems more compelled than ever to give back.

“I feel there’s so much more I would like to be doing,” he says. “I want to do more now because I can envision doing more. I’m grateful to personalities like Oprah and Bono and those in my personal life that have inspired me to find creative ways to build on that.”

A Helping Hand for Hannah and her Buddies

If Bell plans to step it up even more, that’s good news for people on the receiving end of his philanthropic efforts. Already—privately, and with little fanfare—Bell has helped raise over $2 million for Spinal Muscular Atrophy research. “He and Laura were with us at Hannah’s first birthday party when we noticed she didn’t have the skills the others had,” says Hannah’s father, Duncan Elliott. “And they were there when she was diagnosed.”

Like any concerned relative, Bell was moved to do what he could to ameliorate his niece’s difficult situation. “I had this idea of a silent auction, music and golf all balled into one,” says sports enthusiast Bell. “All I had to do was put it into action and, at the very least, I knew I was going to be there, if that’s all there was to it.”

Bell wanted the event to be one where those with the disease and those who wanted to support the cause could come together and have fun. “I’ve seen charity events turn into an obligation, and though people are happy to write a check, they’re ready to go home,” he says. “[But] this is a giving thing in both directions.”

The singular effort turned into a full-fledged annual golf tournament named Hannah’s Buddies Charity Classic, followed later in the evening by the John Bell and Friends Benefit Bash, which includes dinner, a silent auction and, of course, plenty of live music from Bell and his cohorts. Now in its eighth year, the show has attracted musical guests including Col. Bruce Hampton, Kevn Kinney, Galactic and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

“Well over half of the kids with this disease don’t make it past their second birthday, so they’re never really acknowledged as part of their community,” says Elliott. “When John came forward to help, it was the loudest voice this cause had ever had. It penetrated the fanbase pretty deeply, making it a 365-day-a-year cause for a lot of them.”

Perhaps here is where the nebulous relationship between Bell’s private and public lives hinge together, working in tandem toward a greater good. “[Where SMA is concerned],” he says, “a cure is the obvious goal, but part of our ongoing mission has been inclusion and quality of life at the moment, getting the most out of the journey [these kids] are on now.”

Note: There is an error in the article. It refers to John Bell as Hannah Elliott’s uncle. He is her godfather.

widespread panic, john bell, sma, spinal muscular atrophy, golf classic


John Bell Hails Bonnaroo

Abigail Washburn, Mavis Staples, John Bell,
Ben Ellman (Galactic), Dave Attell and Colin Meloy(The Decemberists)

John Bell and Ben Ellman of Galactic

Widespread Panic has become a fixture at the Bonnaroo festival perfoming 4 out of the 6 years since Bonnaroo began in 2002.

"Bonnaroo came off great right off the bat," singer/guitarist John Bell told media on Sunday afternoon during a press conference held at the Bonnaroo media tent on June 17.
"They've been able to avoid the trappings of corporate garbage that you tend to see at these things."

Widespread Panic closed the festival Sunday evening. ( see previous article)

widespread panic, john bell, bonnaroo


Widespread Panic Closes Bonnaroo '07

Widespread Panic rocked out the remainder of the 2007 Bonnaroo Festival on Sunday night. The festival, held in Manchester, TN, is only a small town about 65 miles south of Nashville but over the past 4 days it transformed into the sixth largest city in the state.

The boys seemed to be in good spirits while keeping the Roo audience dancing for a solid 3-hours. Jimmy Herring didn't miss a note, John Bell didn't flub his lyrics and Dave Schools' hair blew in the warm Tennessee breeze during the evening.

Opening with 'Disco', Panic had plenty of endurance with just one very long set and finishing with a 3-song encore. WP didn't disappoint the crowd while kicking-out an awesome rendition of Black Sabbath's 'Faries Wear Boots', the John Lennon tune 'Crippled Inside' as well as a reggae-style 'Chainsaw City'. An upbeat 'Action Man' brought an end this years' festival which drew an estimated 80,000 music fans.

Setlist: Disco > Travelin' Light, Machine > Barstools and Dreamers, Smoking Factory > Surprise Valley > Protein Drink > Sewing Machine, Im Not Alone, From The Cradle > Chilly Water > Visiting Day > Chilly Water, Tickle the Truth Into Submission, Fairies Wear Boots* > Space Wrangler > Drums > Don't Wanna Lose You > Henry Parsons Died, Driving Song, Postcard > Jam > Driving Song > Jack > Chainsaw City** > Fishwater

Encore: Crippled Inside*, Heaven > Action Man
*First Time Played

JB ends the show with a wave goodnight


Widespread Panic Continue To Hear Houser

There's a lot of talk lately about Widespread Panic recording some older songs on the upcoming album written with their late guitarist Mike Houser.

Here we revisit a 2006 video interview with Dave Schools and John Bell discussing Micheal Houser and how they still hear the ghost of their late guitar player on-stage during the band's extensive jams.

from Artisan News Service - 3 minutes


Blueroom Live Stream Webcast at Bonnaroo

If you don't have a chance to visit Tennesse this coming weekend for the 2007 Bonnaroo Festival then relax. You can always catch the the live streaming webcast at the AT&T Blue Room.
At&t Blueroom will webcast each day of the festival June 14- 17 .

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is a four-day, multi-stage camping festival held on a beautiful 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee every June. Bonnaroo brings together some of the best performers in rock and roll, along with dozens of artists in complementary styles such as jazz, Americana, hip-hop, electronica, and just about any contemporary music you can think of. In addition to dozens of epic performances, the festival's 100-acre entertainment village buzzes around the clock with attractions and activities including a classic arcade, on-site cinema, silent disco, comedy club, theater performers, a beer festival, and a music technology village. For its peaceful vibe, near-flawless logistics, and unrivaled entertainment options, Rolling Stone magazine named this revolutionary entertainment experience one of the 50 moments that changed the history of rock and roll.

Widespread Panic is schedueled to perform Sunday, June 17 at 8pm.


Manning Gets Technical

Widespread Panic in the studio

Terry Manning produced the previous Widespread Panic album Earth to America and the band returns once again to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to record another album with Terry.

As he did with the previous album, Manning discussed the recording sessions with Panic on a recording forum at ProSoundWeb.

Jojo Hermann and Jimmy Herring rehearsing

Complete with photos Terry blogged about the month long experience in the studio with the boys and discussed the elements and details of the audio production for the upcoming new album.

Studio gear under Mr Spock's supervision

Scheduled for a Fall 2007 release, the new album will contain 12 songs. As Manning states "...they played very few of the new songs out in public this time.
"Shoes" was held back for the next album, but we did do "Tickle The Truth."
And eleven others".

Manning told the forum readers that this venture will contain a variety of sounds and genres:

"We have songs in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 6/4, 7/4, and other tempos I'm not sure I can quantify. We have acoustic instruments, electric instruments, synthesised instruments, antique instruments, you name it.
We have very hard rock. We have very quiet rock. We have symphonic rock. We have almost-approaching country, and jazz, and vaudeville.
We have:
Electric guitar
Acoustic guitar
12 string guitar
Mando guitar
Hammond organ
Wurlitzer electric piano
Rhodes electric piano
Orchestral tympani drum
Protein powder can lids
...lots more percussion instruments...
Baritone Saxophone
Tenor Saxophone
Alto Saxophone
Soprano Saxophone
French Horn
Double Bass
Lead vocals
Male backing vocals
Female backing vocals
Fiddle.....and lots more on this album".

Manning wasn't kidding when he said "you name it"
Here, JB plays the jug.

That's enough information to have Panic fans raging with anticipation for the new release. But in the meantime, fans of the band will be riding high this weekend with the start of WSP's Summer Tour kicking off at the WAKARUSA FESTIVAL 30 miles west of Kansas City in Lawrence, Kansas.

The band will perfom on Saturday June 9th before heading over to BONNAROO for the following weekend