Many factors can make or break a band - ego, infighting, tour lag - so it's no surprise that Widespread Panic's 20-year career can be chalked up to one simple rule: take things day by day.
For lead singer John Bell, that mantra is a way of life. While he tries to envision the future of Widespread Panic, he really only wants to look as far as what's right in front of him. He's done that for the band's entire existence.
"If you get too far ahead of yourself, it's an opportunity to sabotage things," Bell said by phone while lazying about his Georgia home on April 14, his 44th birthday. "If you're looking toward the future, you're not looking at the here and now."
Over the last two decades, the Athens, Ga.-based sextet has barely stopped to catch their collective breath, save a 15-month hiatus following the 2002 death of founding member Michael "Panic" Houser, for whom the band is named.
Houser's death could've easily derailed the band, but that would have countered their ideals and philosophies, which include taking things as they come and seeing what can happen, Bell said. Instead, they enlisted old friend and guitarist George McConnell to not necessarily take Houser's place, but make the space his own.
Another big change for Panic, which has built a loyal fan base of Grateful Dead-like proportions, was handing over the reins to legendary producer Terry Manning, who has worked with everyone from Led Zeppelin to Elton John to Shakira. It may not have been an easy choice to leave longtime collaborator John Keane and head to Manning's studio in the Bahamas, but it was a necessary one.
"There was no intention of getting away from John (Keane), we just wanted to go to another place to go away from some of the other stuff," Bell admitted. "Athens was so familiar. People always knew where (we) were."
The result was, "Earth to America," a bright light that led Panic out of the dark period of the last few years. The album returns the band to its rootsy blues-rock beginnings, with songs like "Solid Rock" and "When the Clown Comes Home" seeing Panic in its most raw Southern Rock persona.
The collection also features "Second Skin" and "You Should Be Glad," two epic 10-minute-plus jams reflective of the band's impromptu live sets. And like true Southern gentlemen, Panic pays homage to their fallen friend with the sweet and melancholy album closer, "May Your Glass Be Filled."
This May, to keep things fresh, Panic opted to simulcast a performance from Atlanta's Fox Theater in lieu of a proper spring tour. They're following it up with a summer run starting on June 20 in Kansas City that will take them to large outdoor sheds and intimate venues, including a trio of three-night residencies in Los Angeles, Lake Tahoe, Nev., and Chicago, where they'll wrap things up in August.
Bell said the band will dust off some songs they haven't played in almost four years, but which he can't say. Panic generally doesn't choose a set list until just before hitting the stage. And besides, that would go against the mantra of living each day for its own.
"If we were sitting here worried about what the audiences wanted, all we'd be doing is second guessing ourselves," he said. "We're making ourselves happy and giving it our all with enthusiasm and that's what people will come to see. At least that's my theory."
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