John Bell’s tone is upbeat, though he follows his remarks with a sad chuckle: “He was on a lot of morphine at the end, but I was flowing with it.”
The Widespread Panic singer/guitarist is remembering sitting bedside with friend Michael Houser, the guitarist with whom he formed Panic some 25 years ago, as pancreatic cancer was taking him.
“We sat down, and we were working on ‘Travelin’ Man,’ which we put on our first release after Mikey passed away—the Ball album—and he was in bed, and he had his guitar, and he was dictating. He was telling me the words, and he would fade in and out, and I’d just remind him of where we were, and he’d go, ‘Oh, OK, OK,’ and he would bring it back in.
“That was the last song and one of the last activities we had together. And I’m glad I was on hand for it. It’s kind of a hip tribute to how much he enjoyed being in the band and on the road.”
When Houser finally succumbed on August 10, 2002, the story of Widespread Panic stopped being about six creative men who sidestepped conventional industry thinking en route to building a band that could arguably be considered one of this country’s most successful. Instead, it became one about the band who lost its guitarist—at 40, no less. It became a story shrouded in mourning and sadness.
And, to a degree, that’s fair enough. Houser, whose lead guitar style defined the band for legions of fans, formed Widespread’s nucleus after joining up with then-folkie Bell in the early ’80s, when the duo began improvising in bars and hangouts in and around the University of Georgia. Houser wrote a slew of the band’s most treasured songs, and the group’s name was even born out of his own nickname of “Panic,” as he was prone to panic attacks as a young man. And of course his playing and personality were essential to the chemistry of the band.
But after five and a half years, and with the band now enjoying new life with Houser’s second replacement, Jimmy Herring (Aquarium Rescue Unit, The Dead, the Allman Brothers Band), the next chapter of the Widespread story is finally being written, and there are any number of words beginning with “re” that could take the title: rebirth, resurrection, rejuvenated. In addition, in a not-so-weird way, the veteran touring band is in a sense young again, with Herring’s new blood and instincts helping to rewrite the script.
“If I think about the last magical moment I had onstage,” says bassist Dave Schools, “it was literally the encore in Birmingham three weeks ago, at our last show. That’s what’s been amazing about the last couple of tours. With Jimmy’s familiarity with the old material, he can really let go. And there’s been a real noticing on the part of the band that we’re becoming something that’s evolving again.”
A False Start
But of course it hasn’t been easy getting to get to this point. After Houser’s death, the band took a year off, during which some of its members dabbled in side projects. When Widespread Panic regrouped, it did so with the virtually unknown guitarist George McConnell. Though he lasted four years with the group, in a lot of ways, he didn’t seem to stand a chance: Jamband fans resented anything less than one of the scene’s stars—like Herring—filling Houser’s shoes, and McConnell’s bandmates grew impatient as he spent tours trying to corral Panic’s sizeable catalog.
McConnell abruptly left the band, mid-tour, in August 2006. Within two days, the group not only announced that its longtime producer John Keane and guitar tech Sam Holt would be filling his shoes, but that Herring would be replacing McConnell permanently that fall.
In the weeks before his departure, McConnell—whose influences (the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page) were decidedly unfriendly to the jam scene—called himself in Relix magazine the “most hated man in the jamband world,” noting that fans had gone as far as holding “You suck” signs, while “semi-famous” guitarists had approached him and told him that they should be in the band instead of him. Meanwhile, in that same article, even Panic percussionist Sunny Ortiz openly questioned whether he was the right guy for the job.
“I think there were things that we had to do for ourselves during that rough period after Mikey passed away, and I think there were things we were trying to do too soon,” says Schools, “and I think George just kind of got stuck in the middle of a band that’s sort of reeling from the shock of losing a friend, and really, I think he was kind of overwhelmed. There was a lot of material that he had to learn quickly, and maybe not enough time to really become himself. Certainly, more than anything, we wanted him to use the opportunity to evolve as a musician, just like we hope that we do almost every time we play.”
In a word, for Bell, McConnell’s departure came down to “musicality”: “George is a great guy, and he’s a good player, but the way things unfolded and taking the year off and stuff—in no way would I want to pin it all on him, but, just to be polite, we weren’t firing on all cylinders all the time, and we missed that. He was the new guy. None of us were leaving.”
Hittin’ The Note
When Herring finally made his debut, fans gushed online. One wrote: “When Jimmy Herring walked on stage, they were whole again. It took about five notes for me to know it was right.” Another raved: “Instead of eating [revered Phish guitarist] Trey [Anastasio] for breakfast, Jimmy merely chews him up and spits him out.” And another: “Last night was great, but you know that there is greatness to come.”
“We already had a certain amount of trust built in with Jimmy,” remembers Bell. “After two days of rehearsals, he was learning the songs on his own. He’s devastatingly accomplished at his instrument, a really hard worker, and a really nice guy—really consistent and passionate about the music. And he appreciates the way we approach music as a band, which is a little different than 99 percent of the other bands out there. I would say we’re still getting to know each other. We’ve been together a year now, and it’s all extremely promising.
“When he first joined us, there were these moments, especially when we would take off in a free-form style, and you would just find some of those places where the music really starts to take on its own form—where you’re just along for the ride. Those moments happen more and more frequently as we get to know each other.”
And when the band returned to Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas with producer Terry Manning last year to cut the forthcoming Free Somehow, that sense of new adventure came with them. The disc not only marks Herring’s album debut with the band, but it found Panic changing up its recording process. In the past, the band has created on the spot in the studio, but more often that not, they began the tracking process with songs that were pretty much complete, and even road-tested. This time, they came with only a few wholly realized songs and a batch of rough ideas from all six members. They spent roughly 10 days in Nassau demoing, out of which some nearly finished songs arose.
“It’s always great to hear the finished product,” says Schools, “when you get the mastered, sequenced, mixed record. But what was really cool about this record was getting the rough mixes sent to us on tour. It was like, ‘Here is a batch of disparate ideas, some wholly realized songs, and others just sort of cobbled together that suddenly had a sound that was assigned a particular space in time, and it was these six guys and this version of the band’s original new music.’ It sort of blew us all away. Hearing those fleshed out in a space to be real songs and recorded with this band was really amazing.”
College Town Chemistry
If some fans would argue that Herring falling in with the band was fate, Bell probably wouldn’t argue. Certainly, fate seemed to play a sizeable role in the very genesis of the band, in the early-to-mid-’80s in Athens. Having moved from his native Cleveland to attend UGA, Bell experienced some success as a guitar-toting folkie playing on and off campus. Yet when he met Houser and the two of them began improvising onstage, he realized he was onto something much cooler than Neil Young covers.
But the band wasn’t born immediately. The two drifted apart for months, and in the interim they were testing other groups and players. “As soon as I felt that something wasn’t right, I was gone,” remembers Bell. “You’d be sitting around and somebody’s girlfriend would try to orchestrate what’s going on,” Bell says, chuckling. “It was like, ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing? We’re just getting to know each other.’ We both tried hooking up with other bands, and it was like, ‘Oh, God, get me out of here.’
“And then one day we saw each other again on campus, and in that one look, it was confirmed in both our hearts that we really should pursue what we were experiencing before and not take it for granted.”
They worked as a duo for about a year before Schools came on board. Because tempo wasn’t much of a concern for all three, finding a drummer proved a bit tricky. “A lot of guys were like, ‘You guys are crazy,’“ says Bell. “But it’s just different strokes for different folks.” In 1985, Todd Nance assumed the drum stool, and the first incarnation of the core band was born.
For a group whose music would change with its moods, it’s not surprising that major record label types didn’t exactly know what to do with them. While the band would enjoy relationships with Atlanta-based indie Landslide and Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records, it found itself in what felt like bizarre meetings with major-label execs who tried to reign in the band’s free-wheeling style and its refusal to stick to short, sweet pop songs.
“SBK [Records] came down,” remembers Bell, “and they were way old school. They knew there was something going on down there, because we had a lot of people, a lot of fans and potential, because we were a young band. But they never, ever got it. I remember this one guy pulling me aside at our very first meeting in New York, and saying, ‘Hey, I bet you got a bunch of your own songs that you’d like to be playing.’ We were in a big room, and I was closest to the guy, and another conversation had broken out, and I said, ‘Guys, you wouldn’t believe what he just asked me!’”
All For One, One For All
As is usually the case for any band that logs decades, the band’s songwriting process has been completely collaborative since the start. “Everyone’s had varying degrees of input in the whole career of the band,” says Schools, “whether it’s ideas, arrangement ideas or fully realized songs with choruses and parts. If John Bell was to come in with a song he recorded on his home studio, where he was actually tapping on a snare drum, and playing some bass and blowing his harmonica and singing, it would be a fully realized song, but even at that stage, once the band gets a hold of it, you just never know what’s going to happen. And that’s always been a part of the great fun and the method of the band.”
Notes Bell, “It’s really good to remember that nine times out of 10, that collaboration is going to take you way farther than you could have ever have gone with your own personal limitations. When you’ve got six minds at work on the same thing, some really funky stuff can happen. So it’s almost like a musical commune up in our heads. You can trust in the band maybe a little more than you can trust in yourself.”
Surveying the state of the band as it sits today, Schools swells with enthusiasm: “There was a long period with George where there was a lot of learning of the catalog, and that’s sort of static area for us—we have to sort of limit our growth, so we can make sure the new guy gets caught up. And Jimmy went through the process real fast. So more and more on the last couple of tours, there have been those magic moments where amazing musical things just happen, and it’s inspiring the guys in the band. I’ll catch J.B. shooting off into an arc of a new inspiration, which is what I think he likes more than anything—when something takes him somewhere new live because of something someone played or some chemistry event that happened between the six of us.
“That’s what this band is about: It’s sort of careening down a slope. ‘Yo, look out for that tree!’ ‘Wow, okay, here’s something cool I never thought we could do.’ And when everybody notices those, it just crackles and ups the ante of what’s going on onstage.”