Dave Schools talks Orange Beach

Panic! at the Wharf
Widespread Panic visits Orange Beach once again

By LAWRENCE SPECKER Entertainment Reporter (Press-Register@ al.com)

When Widespread Panic wrapped up its 2007 spring tour with two nights in Orange Beach, it seemed like any fan of the band could hardly ask for more: An outdoor setting, pleasant spring weather, all the accommodations and a attractions of a resort area.

But of course, a true fan always has a wish list. For example, "How about three nights next time?"

Wish granted. The titans of the jam-band scene return to Orange Beach for shows on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. A week and a half later they come back to the coast for their first appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival since before Hurricane Katrina hit.

That's a whole lot of Panic, especially the three nights in little Orange Beach. But bassist Dave Schools said it all comes down to keeping listeners happy.

"It's a cool place, it's an interesting little area," he said. "And I think the reason that it was so popular with the fans is that they could all get condos, they could all stay there, there's some things for them to do around there, there's beaches and fishing and so forth, and they just make a whole weekend out of it. They come from everywhere."

It doesn't hurt that the band, which has been making music since the late '80s, has a lot new to offer.

For one thing, there's a renewed sense of cohesion. Following the 2002 death of founding guitarist Michael Houser, the survivors -- Schools, guitarist/vocalist/principal songwriter John Bell, keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann, drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo Ortiz -- took 2004 off. George McConnell's tenure as a replacement ended amid tension in early 2006; since then, Jimmy Herring has settled into the role, enjoying markedly better fan response.

A new studio album released earlier this year, "Free Somehow," is Herring's first as a full contributor. Freshening things up further, the band created most of the songs in the studio rather than first developing them in live play, its usual approach.

That has its good and bad points, Schools said. On the plus side, it's a lot of new territory to play around in.

"We actually pulled them all out the very first night of the tour, because it was April Fool's Day," he said. "We thought, you know, why prolong the nervousness on our part over having to break it out over the course of a week -- you know, let's just get 'em all out there."

"Some of them are easier to pull off live than others. Some of them are going to take a few turns at the wheel before we really get our sea legs on them. But the ones we've been playing (regularly) so far have come along really well."

On the other hand, he said, the process has been a bit "divisive" for the fan base.

"There's a difference in how fans perceive it, too," he said. "They're super-analytical, they double-think everything."

He said he thinks it'll all smooth out as the band learns to fully exploit the potential in each song.

"The way we look at it is, the studio is a snapshot, and it's an opportunity to really gussy up the tunes," he said. "Whether they evolve to the forms that the appear on the record or evolve from the form they appear on the record doesn't really matter to us -- As long as they do evolve. That's what's important to us. And I think most of the diehard fans give us that."

Right up front, songs like "Boom Boom Boom" and "Walk on the Flood" strike the listener as being a bit more raucous, a bit more punchy than one might expect. This seems to come from Herring's guitar work, an impression Schools doesn't dispute.

"I think a lot of that has to do with a side of Jimmy Herring that maybe a lot of people who think they know Jimmy Herring don't know," Schools said. "Which is that he, just like us, was influenced by a lot of the hard rock must that was on the radio in the '70s when he was learning to play."

"Yeah, we're a little older and we love writing smoky ballads, because, you know, we're finally old and slow enough to do it," he said. But then he adds that "we all like a good rock and roll punch."

This might come as a surprise to those who know Panic only as "a jam band." But those who've witnessed them at work know there's a lot more cooking than an endless soup of stereotypically mellow meandering. The reality is more like a musical stew: A big hambone hunk of Southern rock might roll to the surface one minute, or one might encounter a positively jazz-like segue in the next.

So if the flavor has a little more gritty guitar rock this time around, why not? Schools said that in a case like the song "Walk on the Flood," where Bell was moved to write about the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, "that harder edge just seems like the right costume for those words."

Anticipating what their fellow band members are going to do is part of the magic, Schools said. But they don't try to anticipate the crowd, he said, even when they know they're going to be seeing many of the same people three nights in a row.

How does he expect the Orange Beach run to go?

"I think it depends on how much partying they do the first two nights," he said, laughing. "Those who've been into this band for a long time have learned how to pace themselves fairly well.

"As far as how we approach something like that, it is what it is. The one thing can really hurt us, we've found, is trying to overly second-guess what we think the audience wants. Because then the special things aren't going to happen that make us unique. It's best if we just look at the tour as a long arc."

"We try not to stuff the new material down their throats too much. And at the same time we try not to represent ourselves as some sort of nostalgia act, playing music from albums we put out 15 years ago. It's a delicate balance. But if we do what comes naturally to us, then I think everybody, band and audience, are pleased in the end."

To the extent that a certain percentage of the Widespread Panic fan base fondly links Panic imagery and marijuana references, and to the extent the numbers 4-20 are widely used to refer to denote marijuana appreciation, is there anything to be drawn from the fact that the third day of the set is April 20?

Schools jovially declined to touch the question.

"We're certainly not into numerology," he said.

What, then, about the band's return to Jazz Fest?

"One of the biggest honors we've ever enjoyed is to play Jazz Fest, and to have been a part of it for so many years," he said. "It was really difficult for us to stomach the fact, and it was a fact, that things were not working out for us to make a performance showing for New Orleans in the wake of the Katrina thing, but those were the simple facts.

"There were massive hard decisions to be made by the band and the management and the people who organized jazz Fest. We just found we weren't going to be able to do it, and that really bothered us," he said. "I mean, some of us couldn't sleep at night because of it.

"But we're just really happy that now we have a chance to come back and show our support in a way that is more publicly visible than the support we may have shown in the last few years."

As always, the road has more than its fair share of twists and turns. And to the fans headed for Orange Beach, Schools offered one last bit of advice, his tone suggesting that his tongue was firmly in cheek.

"I'll just say this: Just because there's a full moon one of the nights, don't expect us to play some crazy cover song," he said.

"We are not influenced by numerology or astrology."