Editor’s note: With live music and concert reviews on hold due to COVID-19, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is focusing on how Georgia musicians are spending their time in our feature, Mic Check.
John Bell is an imposing figure, but the frontman for Widespread Panic is the epitome of a gentle giant.
Though soft-spoken in conversation, his distinctively raspy voice has powered the Athens-reared band for 34 years.
A few years ago, Panic (as fans refer to them) drastically reduced their touring regime, playing about 30 shows a year instead of close to 100. But even that cutback doesn’t compare to the downtime Bell has experienced for the first time in his musical career due to the coronavirus.
He and his wife Laura, a therapist-counselor who works in Clarksville, have mostly stayed cocooned in their western North Carolina home the past few months, going out every week or so for groceries and watching TV shows such as “Outlander,” “The Last Kingdom” and “Billions.”
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But, said, Bell, “I’ve taken to starting my day off without the TV and doing some breathing and stretching. A little mediation and a cup of tea is a nice way to set the tone for the day.”
He and the rest of Widespread Panic — drummer Duane Trucks, bassist Dave Schools, guitarist Jimmy Herring, percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz and keyboardist John “JoJo” Hermann — can be appreciated online in the classic concerts they frequently stream on their Facebook page.
But for now, Bell is taking this unusual time to appreciate the quiet.
Q: How have you been spending time?
A: I've been laying low, cleaning some closets, doing a bunch of stuff that's hard to do if you're always going off and doing gigs. So, I'm keeping up with the mail for the first time in my life. There are things I feel very grateful about. You tend to shy away from talking about silver linings, but it is good to have something to focus on. Anything that helps you feel productive and helps you stay focused on the task at hand rather than lamenting about the past or worrying about the future.
Q: What do you miss?
A: That we couldn't play the Chicago shows (the band was scheduled for a run of shows at the Chicago Theatre in April). That's all one big package. I like the hotels there; I wait to have deep-dish pizza there. The Chicago Theatre, it's kinda Fox-like. (Widespread Panic is tentatively scheduled to play the shows in August.) I do miss performing. Getting together with the guys, keeping callouses on your fingers. On the other hand, there's a little more time at home to work on songs. I have a little music room that I'll put some multi-track ideas together. We're checking in with each other, but you want to give everybody their space to figure out how they can move comfortably through these times.
Q: What have you been listening to?
A: When (the New Orleans) Jazz Fest would have been taking place for four days over two weekends in a row (in April and May), the local radio station, WWOZ, put together a virtual Jazz Fest to stream. That was pretty cool. We went into Jazz Fest mode for those two weekends. They were playing the greatest hits of past performers and giving you half an hour of each band and printed out a schedule like they would a regular festival. I've also mostly listened to the Tom Petty channel on SiriusXM. I always dug Petty, but to be exposed to the way they present that music, they get deep into his catalog and some of the various other bands that he performed with and live recordings. I was just sitting there and taking it in and listening to song structure – the simplicity of it, but how it really strikes a heavy chord. You go, that guy was a real cool cat.
Q: You guys last played the Fox over New Year’s and play there a lot. What does the venue mean to you and the band?
A: I dare say we might take it for granted. It's such a special place, and at one point in our careers, it was a daydream to think we'd play there. That's our Atlanta home, basically our Georgia home. Rarely do we play Athens because they don't really have a place where the size is just right. It's special all on its own. It's great to have familiar faces when you walk through the door.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution