For more than 27 years, singer/guitarist John ‘JB’ Bell has found himself fronting two different bands – and they are both Widespread Panic.
The Athens-based band’s enormous critical and popular success has been based on it’s famously improvisational live sets, its ability to incorporate a variety of ideas and styles into its music and a string of strong records demonstrating the band’s desire to make songs that are tight and right.
Widespread Panic plays James Brown Arena – its first Augusta gig in 17 years – on Wednesday, June 11. Tickets are $42.50 at the box office, (877) 428-4849 and georgialinatix.com.
“Widespread Panic has been an evolution,” Bell said during a recent telephone interview. “It’s a way of doing things. When we are on stage we are in a place where anything can happen. When we are in the studio we are developing ideas and the way we hope things will happen. It’s about producing three-and-a-half or four minutes of us at our very best.”
While those carefully constructed songs, built for quick and easy consumption, usually become something much grander – and longer – when Panic plays live, Bell said there is an essential truth that runs through everything they do. He said the Widespread sound is built on the idea that everyone has something to add – their own history, their own influences and their own interpretation of the music.
“It’s exactly the way we experience it when we are playing and it’s the way we want the audience to experience it,” he said. “Everyone has their own way of experiencing things. They filter through their own experience. It’s not our job to make you feel a certain way. It’s our job to make you feel.”
In an era when music acts tend to appear, enjoy their 15 minutes and fade into the history books, Bell understands that the longevity Widespread Panic has enjoyed is something of an anomaly. He said the band wasn’t formed out of a desire to become famous or build a career or even tour. It started with finding people that enjoyed playing together and then seeing what the next day would bring.
“In the beginning that’s really how things worked,” he said. “We were one day and one tour at a time for a long time. We really just wanted to be able to pay the rent on our band house.”
While significant success did eventually come, it has also been hard won. In 2002 founding member and lead guitar player Michael Houser died from pancreatic cancer. It was his wish that the band continue. Bell said it is the band’s chemistry – sometimes infectious, sometimes volatile and always inspiring – that allows them to carry on.
“When we get together it’s a lot like being in a playground,” he said. “We never know exactly what we’re going to do and you never know exactly what is on the other kids’ minds and hopefully we’ll all be good kids and not get into any fights.”
Longevity, he added, isn’t necessarily measured in time. He said true longevity for a band – or any artist – is measured by the impact made. He hopes that is what Widespread Panic is doing.
“Look at The Beatles,” Bell said. “They came to America in 1964 and in 1970 they were done. That blows me away. That’s perfect timing, perfect songwriting and perfect personalities. Look at that longevity. Done in 1970 and we are still talking about them.”
While impact remains the aspiration, that initial attraction is the reward. Widespread Panic, built on the joy found playing with particular people, remains a going concern for the very same reason.
“We like being together,” Bell said. “We still like doing this. We still like writing together. It’s pretty simple. I mean, I’m almost 50 and this took 30 years. I think I’m happy – very happy – where I’m at.”