Panic in Ogden: JB Interview

By Linda East Brady - Standard-Examiner staff

Panic Attack in Ogden
Popular band brings diverse music, youthful appeal to Dee Events Center

Widespread Panic's John Bell, known fondly as JB by friends and fans, sees himself as something of a bonsai tree.

Despite moseying into his middle years, he long ago stopped growing up.

"My mission, when I was born into this life, was to stay a kid," he laughed, calling from a shopping trip near his home in Athens, Ga.

But don't think because Bell cops to Peter Pan tendencies that he is not serious about his music. Widespread Panic is renowned for its diverse music and fan-friendly tours -- and for, in over two decades of shows, never repeating a set list.

The longtime lineup has recently been recharged with the addition of guitarist Jimmy Herring. Herring has toured with, among many others, the Allman Brothers Band and The Dead (a group comprised of surviving members of the Grateful Dead and Herring, a distinction made since about 2003).

"(Herring) has been champing at the bit -- or at least that's my impression -- to get in there and be on the creative end of the songwriting process with us," said Bell. "But I think, with a lot of his projects, that he has been coming on as a hired gun -- and it was even that with us, somewhat. But now we're really glad to get into the studio and explore that part of our relationship, see his creative contributions in a new light."

Widespread Panic heads to Ogden for the first time since 2001, playing the Dee Events Center on Thursday.

Freedom radio

Bell said his early musical tastes were shaped courtesy of his older brothers' record collections.

"This was the '60s and '70s, and the radio had a lot of freedom then, too. So we'd hear Santana and Hendrix and a whole new frontier of people doing their best to work outside the box. Neil Diamond and Carole King were cranking out hits as songwriters. Motown was huge, too -- I lived in Cleveland, and we got a Canadian station out of Windsor, Ontario, right across the border from Detroit.

"And since I was allowed to listen to the radio anytime ... I would fall asleep with it under my pillow."

One day, Bell said, he started playing music for money, without any real thought of doing it as a formal career.

"But other avenues, other jobby-jobs, weren't really working out." Bell laughed. "Thus, I was growing more cynical. So I started playing local bars in Athens, in college. It started being something I could actually do, making my own rules and hours, to some extent.

"But that gets a little lonely. So I hooked up with Mike (Houser, the band's late guitarist), and Todd (Nance, drums), Dave (Schools, bass) and Sunny (aka Domingo Ortiz, keyboards) came on board. And then came Jojo (Herman, keyboards). Then we had George (McConnell, guitar, joining for a time after Houser's death in 2002)."

Panicky followers

The band is known for its devoted, tour-trailing fan base, often cited as being close cousins to like-minded Deadheads of yore.

"Our relationship with the fans started with our relationship among our band members," said Bell. "That's because we were the fans, the only ones listening to us, at first. A few early gigs, when you were lucky enough to even get a gig, there were maybe two tables' worth of people. They'd have to let the waitress go early, because there was no business to pay her.

"So in those situations, you just play to amuse yourselves. And turns out that when we amused ourselves, others were amused, too. I think there is something there, that interaction among us, that is something folks like to watch.

"I can say that if I am in the audience, I'd prefer to watch a band exploring, getting off, so to speak, finding inspiration and riding those waves, rather than trying to impress me with their moves or whatever."

Next big thing

Widespread Panic was working on a new album right before this latest road trip.

Bell said the tracks are all pretty much completed, noting, "Now we are in the mode to get things in place. We're kind of rearranging the furniture."

The last album, the 2006 release "Earth to America," landed the band in Billboard's Top 50. That effort was recorded at the Bahamian recording studio Compass Point, run by legendary producer Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, Al Green, Lenny Kravtis, ZZ Top). The group decided to work with Manning yet again, but had limited time to make that studio time happen.

"We had only seven days there, so we got all our big musical ideas in a big pile and started sorting through. It's a good place to do it, because while it is beautiful down there, it is boring."

He laughed. "There aren't as many distractions as at home. So in that time, we came up with a little pile of CDs, 20 or 25 songs each, and took them home with us to study."

Once the final tracks were picked from the Bahamian recordings, Bell said, they were able to polish the final versions fairly quickly.

"We were going about 12 hours, 14 hours a day, and boom, got it done in about three weeks. Again, the quick work was out of necessity. We have so little time at home, so that added a new dimension to this record."

Many of the new songs will be tried out on the road, said Bell, to see how the fans take to them.

"They are good judges of our material," he said. "There are many paths to the rock 'n' roll experience, you know. And we've found that the way we do it has had its rewards along the way."

Panic Button

John Bell had been playing music with Michael Houser for about five years when the two formed what would become Widespread Panic. Houser was also known by the nickname Panic.

"He was our original guitar player -- very original, I might add," said Bell, chuckling. "Just as a joke, (Houser) came back one day with a poster of the Widespread Depression Orchestra. He announced he didn't want to be just Panic anymore -- he wanted to be Widespread Panic.

"We all kind of laughed. Then, right after that, we got an invitation to play a benefit for hunger in Africa. Well, we really didn't have a name, and didn't see the sense in worrying overmuch about that. We just borrowed Panic's new nickname."

The band that still bears Houser's stage name lost him to pancreatic cancer in August 2002.