Widespread Panic singer/guitarist John Bell is expecting a busy year of touring for the band. One reason is there is a new album, Street Dogs, to promote, but a bigger factor might be that the group has reached another milestone.
“I try not to look too far ahead, but I’m pretty sure our agent is going to milk this 30th year for all that it’s worth,” Bell said in a recent phone interview.
Indeed, it’s been 30 years since Widespread Panic came together in Athens, Ga. But Bell is sounding a little hesitant about making too much out of the anniversary.
“Well, the 25th was, we didn’t necessarily make a big deal, but it was an element of how we presented ourselves that year on tour and in the media,” he said. “So 30, that was just a blink away, I guess. It felt like we just did 25.”
What Bell and his bandmates are expecting to do this year is play material from Street Dogs and enjoy the process of seeing how the songs evolve in a live setting.
“We’re having a lot of fun playing them because they’re new,” he said. “They’re still growing past the studio (versions).”
Widespread Panic will play at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, at James Brown Arena, 601 Seventh St. Get tickets at georgialinatix.com or (877) 428-4849.
Fans will hear more than new songs at Widespread Panic’s concerts. This band, after all, changes up its set list from show to show and is known to play lengthy shows.
“We’ll bring back some old tunes we haven’t played in a long time, but that’s kind of par for the course,” Bell said. “We’ve got, I don’t know, maybe 300 tunes that we work with. So you’ve got to kind of put them in the blender and keep a good rotation so some float to the top and some stick to the sides.”
Widespread Panic fans have been waiting for awhile to hear new songs from the band. The group’s previous album, Dirty Side Down, was released in 2009, which meant six years had passed by the time Street Dogs arrived this past September.
Bell said it didn’t feel like it had been that long between albums to the band, which continued to maintain a busy tour schedule and took a couple of breaks to work on outside projects during that time. With touring, the side projects and making time to be home with families, setting aside time to write and record albums can become a bit of a task.
“It was a combination of things,” Bell said, explaining the gap between the two albums. “Mostly it’s where it can fit in your schedule and if you have the collective itch to go into the studio. That usually comes about when you have a few song ideas in your head and everybody’s sharing those things and then you say ‘Ah well, it’s time to put a record together.’”
For Widespread Panic, the itch set in about two years ago when the group – Bell, guitarist Jimmy Herring, keyboardist John Hermann, bassist Dave Schools, percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz and drummer Duane Trucks – convened for a pre-production session to demo out song ideas. The group, though, waited another year before heading into Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville, N.C., to record Street Dogs.
This gave the group time to listen to song ideas, live with them and gather ideas for how to further tweak the songs before heading into the studio for recording.
By that time, the band and producer John Keane had decided on a few ideas for how they wanted to approach recording the album.
A big decision was rather than tracking instruments individually, to try recording the songs essentially live as a band, and keep overdubs to a minimum. The goal was to try to capture some of the spontaneous magic of a Widespread Panic live show on a studio album.
This influenced the choice of Echo Mountain, a converted church in Asheville, as the studio.
“Our first thing was we wanted a room where we could be in a live format and have good eye contact and stuff, but also be able to isolate (instruments),” Bell said. “We didn’t mind a little bit of bleed in from some of the instruments, but we definitely wanted the integrity of the recording process (preserved), so John, our producer, had some clean tracks to work with. So Echo Mountain was great for that.
“It was also away from our usual, most of our albums we’ve made in Athens,” he said. “Some of us live there and we know so many people and people are aware of who is in the studio. So there are a lot of distractions that can take place there. And Echo Mountain had a really good lounge-type recreation area. While we weren’t in the studio engaging, we were there together having fun. A couple of guys could be shooting pool. A couple of guys could be knocking out some ideas on the couch with a guitar or something like that. So it was very comfortable.”
The approach allowed for some of the freewheeling improvisation that’s a big part of Widespread Panic’s live show to occur during recording. Songs like Cease Fire and Sell Sell (a cover of a tune by Alan Price of the Animals that had been in Widespread Panic’s live repertoire for awhile) have extended segments that showcase the instrumental interplay of the group, while staying focused enough not to turn into meandering jams.
Street Dogs also finds Widespread Panic exploring a jazzy side of its music, especially on Poorhouse of Positive Thinking and Jamais Vu (The World Has Changed). Those songs are balanced by several potent rockers, including Welcome to My World (a song written by Keane), Street Dogs For Breakfast and Steven’s Cat (a playful tune that incorporates sly references to the artist who now goes by Yusef Islam).
“Theoretically we were going for something by getting away from the perfection-type attitude,” Bell said. “We were trying to get back to something, capture something that had a lot of breath and life to it. We were getting there with Dirty Side Down, too, because we made it a point to finish a song, even with overdubs and stuff, before we moved onto the next song. That way, each song, it would have a better chance of standing on its own and not sounding like the very next one.
“So the process was to go in and play these songs, be familiar with them, but not so familiar that you lose the excitement of the freshness of it,” he said.
While the band enjoyed recording live in the studio, Bell doesn’t rule out taking a traditional, studio-crafted approach in the future.
“There’s something very inviting about that too, the perfectionism and the piling on of extra tracks and vocals and things like that and instruments that you normally don’t have with you on the road,” he said. “There’s something really appealing to that because the other time, when you’re on the road, you’re doing the live thing all the time.”