Widespread Panic's John Bell Talks Keys, Rumors, and Gardening

Widepread Panic gets key to Manchester, Tennessee, doesn't take to the highway.

By , Contributor

Widespread Panic, the thinking man's jam band, was awarded the key to the city of Manchester, Tennessee, the tiny little town that has played host to Bonnaroo since 2002, seeing its population of 8,300 swell to over 100,000 for three days in June. Why Panic? Ostensibly, because they have headlined the festival for a record eight times in the past ten years, closing this year's festival with an epic three-hour set.

But there's more to it than that. WSP is celebrating their 25th anniversary; amidst rumors that they're ready to pack it all in something founding member John Bell says just isn't so. Bell talks to The Morton Report about rumors, gardening, and the Zen of free-falling.

It's been a year of milestones. How does getting the key to Manchester, Tennessee compare to 25 years in Widespread Panic?

Well, you know, like many moments along the way it stops and makes you think. But it's an unusual honor and so that's really nice, coming from a small community that's benefiting by this massive carnival that comes into their world once a year. We had a mayor of the county, a mayor of the city, and the Fire Marshall. And they brought their little kids and stuff and grandchildren, so we were on our best behavior for that.

In the picture it looks like you didn't actually get keys. It looked like they were plaques. What was up with that?

It's a little key attached to a plaque. And I did not notice if it was detachable but it was hinged so it kind of flapped around on there.

So you can put it on your real key ring if you need to?

I think so.

Widespread Panic got the honor because you were at the very first Bonnaroo and you had headlined Bonnaroo more than any other band?

 I reckon that's what it was all about, our 25th anniversary, their 10th anniversary, and maybe just because we weren't pedaling away, that "Here's the key."

Maybe they wanted to make sure that you were still going to be a band and gave it to you amidst all the rumors you were either breaking up or taking a few years off.

Well, probably [laughs]. There was a misquote in one of those articles. And amazing, you can do three hours of interviews, like in that other publication, and it turned into whatever story they wanted to write.

You're talking about the interview you did for Garden and Gun?

Yeah, we had a fellow out there with his antennae up and he looks for different things. It's different than Rolling Stone and Spin and all that.

Why did Garden and Gun want to talk to you? Are you a gardener? Are you a gun guy?

Actually, I do a lot of gardening. But that publication is more than just that. It's amazing how many people read it because I got a lot of feedback from it. What would be the equivalent to something that I read? Like I read Hope Power magazine, about alternative energy sources and stuff, and this is something for folks who are really gourmet type people and probably grew up a little well-to-do and the hunting is part of that stuff too.

Let's get back to Bonnaroo. How did this one compare with the other ones? Was it more exiting because it was the tenth? What have you noticed that's the most changed about the festival?

All the good parts of the festival are still intact. They really did start out well and they were blessed with good weather and good timing, that the inaugural event grabbed 80,000 people and they've never really looked back after that. And so that Bill Graham kind of aspect to it, that kind of remained. You got all sorts of weird stuff and clowns and toys and candy, keeping a childlike atmosphere to it.

And as far as grabbing all these different kind of bands year after year, the flavor of the week comes in. You've also got some of the folks who've been around, then you have something like the  Buffalo Springfield reunion after 43 years. I think that's the best way to go about keeping this thing alive. It doesn't have just one feel to it or one theme. Musically, it's the most eclectic event I've seen. Even more than Jazz Fest, and Jazz Fest is pretty eclectic. But Bonnaroo really takes it to another level.

Do you change your set list when you play Bonnaroo since there's so many people and some might not be hardcore Widespread Panic fans?

Nah, as far as the type of people that we might presume that we're playing for, we don't alter our approach at all. But the idea that it's such a large outdoor venue, our approach leans more towards definitely one long set, two and a half to three hours. Then there are fewer lulls in there for slow-paced, pretty songs. It's more good old, hit-you-in-the-face rock and roll kind of stuff.

So you don't do as many jams as you would do in your normal set?

Oh, no, the improvisation and the jamming is still prevalent but it's more in a rock and roll vein than an ethereal vein. We're not going to pull it off if we're getting too pretty; we let things unfold naturally. But as far as song selection goes, I've noticed that it seems to go more towards rock and roll.

I remember WSP used to be famous for never using set lists. At what point did you know that it was time to use them?

When we started second-guessing ourselves onstage instead of just flowing into another song. For two reasons. You got this vibe of one guy thinking, "Oh, we should play this," and "You know, I was really wanting to play this," that kind of thing. And so you can't really move seamlessly from song to song like that if there's any second-guessing. But also we started having so many songs to work with that without a set list you'd forget some songs. You'd forget to play them often enough that you'd lose touch with them, and so your group of songs that you'd work from would become a little more finite and that wasn't really helping our excitement factor and our freshness, our feeling of keeping it new and being able to visit a lot of old friends as far as the songs went.

By making a set list, does that change any of that kind of intuitive leaps from song to song, like how they are connected in ways that only you would know? Do you ever feel like it's mathematical, or do you do it like a flow chart?

We think about it a little bit when putting the set together. If it's an awkward key change, we'd notice that, and that might not work. Same with a tempo situation. And lyrically, it could be all of a sudden in this blues mode that's running and then this other song comes out of nowhere and is ooh, woo happy, you know. It might be a little hard to jump character there.

Do you find that nights have themes? I mean do you feel like you're in a mood sometime and the whole set reflects your mood?

Yeah, it happens like that sometimes. You'll see a very bluesy set or more of an acoustic-y country kind of thing, and a lot of times it just kind of comes, you write it down on paper and all of a sudden you look at and notice that that it didn't happen intentionally. It just came from putting songs together.

Recently you said that you sometimes feel an almost unnatural sense of being dialed in when you play, that everybody in the band is on the same wavelength and there's no difference between you and the other guys. You said, "There's a oneness being sensed intuitively through the music." Can you explain a little bit about feeling dialed into your songs?

Are you speaking lyrically?

I think I'm speaking more metaphysically.

As with anything, considering that it's a possibility and understanding the reality of it, that's the first step. And then with the engagement, the repetition, and if you're willing to go there and apply yourself in that mode, then it becomes pretty easy. And actually in a way it's easier with repetition. You put your boat in the water and then start going downstream. You don't fight it. First you find the stream, and hopefully you got a boat, and then you go ahead and drift down with it and try to avoid the rocks.

You say you never do a song the same way twice. What do you change and how can you ensure that you're doing it differently?

I get out of the way and let it happen. I don't make it happen. I set myself up in a way that I'm receptive to the process but you don't force it. I surprise myself, sometimes I find I'm singing with a different voice. Or I'll be approaching a song a little bit differently, with different notes, or different words. You see instrumentalists improvising all the time and that's more normal, but it's exactly the same. But people don't usually do that unless you get into jazz and some scat and stuff like that. Well, rappers do. I've seen street musicians that go off and there is a lot of spontaneity there. And so that's basically it. You tap into something that's really right there and available to you.

I know that you were an amateur golfer with an eye to making it to the PGA when you were younger. Does this have to do more with you being in the zone, say when you were golfing with your love of Coltrane?

It all comes from the same place, it's just different manifestations.

Are you always tapped in or do you ever have any awkward moments?

Oh, no, no, no. No, sometimes you forget and you're paddling upstream and it's insane. And you're wondering why it's so hard when you had it just a minute ago. Then you go, 'oh, crap,' and you take a while to stop and look at something and your boat turns itself round and starts going downstream. And you say to yourself, "Oh yeah. This was it. I didn't have to do anything."

I understand that you and your wife run a wellness center?

Yeah. It's Cedar Heights Center.

What's your role in the Center? Do you have actual clients yourself? I know your wife Laura is a counselor.

I'm very much behind the scenes, in a supportive role, and when I'm home I work in the gardens.

I never knew that you gardened. I was going to ask you if there was anything that you were an expert on, and now I find this. Aren't you a wine connoisseur?

I like wine. [loudly]

No need to be defensive.

No, no, it was more to say it's like I don't consider myself a connoisseur or knowledgeable, it's just, I like it.

Tell me about the gardening then.

We've got a regular vegetable and herb beds, and now we're just finishing up a new garden that's going to be very colorful and full of medicinals. It's a larger structure. The garden itself is a sculpture, not just a box. You won't see that one quite yet because the last bricks are just being laid.

What do you like about gardening?

It's pretty hip to just get dirty, and watch stuff grow. And people are standing around hoping for miracles every day. Like 'Oh, man, it'd be a miracle if I could just land this job,' or something like that. But if you watch stuff grow from seed to full plant and then watch the cycle again, you get to witness something pretty magical right there. I mean we take it for granted because we see it all the time and we watch the seasons change all the time, but it's still pretty freaky, and the more you put yourself into that environment and really watch it, the more you get out of it.

Do you find you get inspiration for songs when you're working in the garden?

Yeah. I wouldn't say more so than any other place, but any activity that you get lost in, or - they're kind of interchangeable right there - then that's when connections and things start popping up and you'll start seeing things that you could easily shift into words and music, and kind of convey the subtle epiphany you might have just thought you experienced.

While we've established that you're not going to break up despite what Garden and Guns said, and will take a sabbatical, how long will it be? I remember Widespread Panic took 14 months off before.

It'll be no more than a year. Maybe a little less, but we're still trying to figure it out. It's kind of like packing for vacation. It hasn't really started till you've got your stuff in the car and you're on your way

Do you have plans for your year off?

No. And intentionally so. It's just to be able to experience that moment of waking up and not feeling any sense of responsibility or beginning a project or going someplace, to really give yourself that feeling of freedom to just begin your day and go wherever it takes you. That's the way I treat it. Other than that, I can't speak for everybody else.

You recently turned 49. Did it change anything for you? Do you already think you're 50?

I'm kind of hitting it early. It's probably what turning 30 was to folks back in the '60s and '70s, with all of a sudden you became a grown-up and had to start wearing those hats.

Right, in a Mad Men world. Isn't there also a greater awareness of time passing?

That's exactly what I've noticed, is for some reason, a couple of years shouldn't make any difference but at one point the thought crosses your mind that you really don't have all the time in the world. You start thinking theoretically this body in this incarnation is going to give out at one point and you want to make the most of it.

What I've also noticed is not to lament missed opportunities or guilt. Leave that crap aside and be happy for the realization that you still got a lot of life to live.

Are you always this sane?

Oh, no. That falls into the category of what you think and what you believe and then putting it into practice.

Widespread Panic just did two Pay-Per-View concerts at the Moody Theater in Austin. Where did the light bulb go off to do push the boundaries of the current live-stream concert trend?

Well, I think if we didn't do it now, it probably would catch up to us that we missed the boat on it..

Right, like being behind the curve rather than in front of it.

Yeah and luckily we're in a situation in Austin that they have these beautiful facilities set up for it because this is where they do Austin City Limits as well. It's a brand new facility so they have all this new technology to do it seamlessly and without glitches. And so we're lucky this happens to be where we're playing and we're willing to do it, and I think we're doing the same thing from Red Rocks as well. Now it's probably just going to turn into something where you do it so much that you don't even think about it and aren't self-conscious about it.

How many days on the road are you now, after 25 years into it?

It's probably 80 gigs. We're on the road maybe 110 days, 120. Around there somewhere.

I remember when Widespread Panic got Billboard magazine's Road Warrior award. In the early days it was like 200-plus, right?

Yeah, we were just all the time. We had years in the beginning that we played more than 300 shows.

Well, then you deserve that year off.

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Jaan Uhelszki was one of the founding editors at Detroit’s legendary Creem magazine. Since that time, her work has appeared in USA Today, Uncut, Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, Relix, and Guitar World. She is the only journalist to have ever performed in full makeup with Kiss. Luckily she only had to put…

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