Widespread Panic singer John Bell talks touring, cover songs and new music

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

Credit: Melissa Ruggieri

There are few current bands who have earned the type of road warrior status that befits Widespread Panic.

The Athens-based jam rockers – singer-guitarist John Bell, keyboardist JoJo Hermann, guitarist Jimmy Herring, bassist Dave Schools, drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz – are insatiable when it comes to touring. Their Halloween and New Year’s Eve concerts are legendary, even among those who can’t recite the lyrics to “Porch Song” or “Love Tractor.”

And after 28 years of regularly hitting the road, they’re doing it again, with a fall jaunt that kicked off the first part of October and will roll through November until they stage another New Year’s blowout.

Calling a couple of days before their fall tour launch on Oct. 3, the soft-spoken Bell chatted about touring, cover songs and the possibility of new Panic music in 2015.

(Shortly after this interview, the band announced on their website that drummer Duane Trucks would be filling in for Nance on the tour, who is “taking time to attend to personal matters.”)

Here are some of Bell’s thoughts:

Q: You played the amphitheater in Alpharetta last year and Philips Arena for New Year’s Eve. Does it matter to you if you’re playing indoors or out?

A: Only if it's raining and the wind is blowing, then it becomes an issue (laughs)! At outdoor venues, you usually get a better look at the audience, if you do look out their way, because there's more safety lightning.

Q: You’re playing Charlotte for this New Year's. Why not come back to Atlanta?

A: It's usually a matter of trying to shake things up a little and do things different. I'm not sure exactly why we landed there this year, but it's a good venue; it's worked for us before. Atlanta gets pretty busy around New Year's, but they're both easy destinations to get to. It's mostly a logistical thing.

Q: You brought the (acoustic) Wood Tour back this year. What are the benefits to playing all-acoustic shows?

A: It allows us to approach some songs differently and it's a more intimate setting since the shows are usually in slightly smaller venues. For me, I get to sit down and I'm lazy so that's a plus! I think our dynamics are a little different. We achieve them more through getting a little bang here and a little louder there and then quieting down and we have to achieve that with our own personal approach with the instruments.

When we first did (acoustic shows) a few years back, that approach to dynamics seeped back into what we did live (electric) as well. We’d take an hour a day before the shows to change some arrangements, see what tunes felt good acoustically. We had to get our fingers in shape guitar-wise because playing acoustic is a little tougher on the hands. What was really neat that first time was we didn’t know how it was going to come off. But the shows balance each other out. As soon as you do acoustic you’re ready to go out and play rock ‘n’ roll, but because we’ve been doing it one way for 28 years, (the acoustic versions) are fresher.

Q: Your last studio album was in 2010 and then the live one in 2012. Are you working on new music, or at this point is everything concentrated on touring?

A: We're always working on stuff. When we end up feeling we have enough of a grip on something and the time to spend, then we'll go up to the studio and acquire a relationship with a record company. Every time we're about to embark on (a new record) we go into discussion with different record company. Personally, I like having a relationship with another batch of people and their machine.

But likely next year something new…whenever an idea pops in you have to snatch it. Another good thing about technology, it used to be that you’d walk around with a little tape recorder in your pocket, but now with your phone you have voice memo in there and can use that.

Q: Speaking of technology, have you gotten into social media at all?

A: It's a little too much for me to wrap my head around, beyond knowing that (social media interaction) is the norm these days and you're sort of missing some opportunities. We have some younger folks in our office who are highly skilled in that area. But personally, I basically stop at emails.

Q: You’ve been doing this for 28 years – ever get tired of the road?

A: It's never fun to leave home, but when you're playing and engaged, it's as fun as it's ever been. I pretty much look down or close my eyes on stage; it helps more with the imagery with the lyrics and stuff.

Q: Fans went crazy for your cover of the Talking Heads’ "Burning Down the House" at the New Year’s Eve show. How do you decide what covers to do and when they'll work the best?

A: That song was always played as house music after a show and we noticed that kids would still be in their seats partying and that's a memory that fans had, so we just said let's bring it out and play it ourselves. Usually we'll just talk about something and if everybody feels excited about it we'll do it. The fall tour contains the Halloween show and that's usually when we pull out the spooky stuff. That's usually four or six covers we've never done before.

Widespread Panic. 7:30 p.m. Saturday. $47.50. Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park, 2200 Encore Parkway, Alpharetta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.

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