COMIN’ HOME Widespread Panic

With their 11th studio album
in hand – and as they approach their 25th anniversary –  the Georgia jammers remain
well-established in their Panic-ness.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

Home.

 

Some people say
home is where you hang your hat.

 

Nashville is John Hermann’s hat rack. Jimmy
Herring hangs his motorcycle helmet in Atlanta.

 

Other people say
home is where your heart is.

 

If that’s the
case, Dave Schools’ is out among the Sonoma County
California redwoods. John Bell’s lies deep inside the north Georgia hills.

 

Athens, Georgia,
is home for Widespread Panic, though only drummers Todd Nance and Sunny Ortiz
still live in the town where Schools, Nance, Bell and the late Michael Houser
played their first show together at a charity event at the Mad Hatter nearly 25
years ago.

 

Yet for Dirty Side Down, the band’s eleventh
studio album just out on ATO Records, Widespread Panic decided to return home to
long-time producer and partner-in-crime John Keane after two albums cut at
Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Grand Bahama with the legendary Terry Manning. While some
claim Manning’s production approach deviated from the band’s sound, frontman
John Bell says the move back home was nothing more than timing.

 

“We’d done a
couple of records with Terry, which was cool and a lot of fun,” Bell says. “His approach
is different with all the extra instrumentation and vocals and stuff, which I
loved. Some people have said that those songs aren’t ‘pure Panic.’ I don’t know
what that means, because they were our records. Our name is on them. But we did
want to go back to Athens,
not in response to anything we did with Terry, but I think we were all ready to
get back to our regular instrumentation and at the same time stay close to
home.”

 

“We wanted to be
back in the comfort zone,” says bassist Schools. “John’s been with us from the
very beginning. We trust him implicitly. We fight him like brothers. When he says,
‘You’re doing it all wrong,’ we’re gonna fight him, but in the back of our
minds we know he’s probably right. He’s family, and I love it when John’s at
the table.”

 

Recording locale
wasn’t the only thing that changed for Dirty
Side Down
. For the past few records, the band has largely written brand new
songs for the express purpose of recording without road-testing anything in
their live shows. On Dirty Side Down,
the decision was made to mine their archives for some unrecorded material. Some
songs developed as jams onstage. Others are just ideas that have been tossed
around rehearsal rooms and soundchecks. Some are old concert stalwarts that
were rearranged.

 

“Visiting Day”
falls into the latter category. A blues dirge that first popped up in the
band’s sets during the Spring 2000 tour, “Visiting Day” was penned by Hermann
and quickly became a fan favorite. The band demoed it for 2001’s Don’t Tell The Band, though Schools says
the band agreed the song wasn’t quite ready.

 

“We didn’t feel
like it was finished,” Schools says. “I think we’ve all felt that something
more could be done with it, and that it wasn’t quite where it needed to be.”

 

The song was
reborn for Dirty Side Down, Bell says, by “putting a
new head on the old song’s body.”

 

“Jimmy had this
baritone guitar blues riff that was kinda swampy and jaunty that he was laying
down one day in the studio, and Jojo just wandered in and began singing
‘Visiting Day’ over the top of it,” Schools says. “We all looked at each other
and said, ‘Why not?'”

 

Instrumental
songs have been of big part in Widespread Panic’s musical personality dating
all the way back to “The Take Out” off their 1988 debut, Space Wrangler. Songs like “Disco,” “A of D,” and “Happy Child” are
considered classic Panic staples by the band’s loyalists, so news of “St. Louis” – the newest
addition to this wordless tradition – being worked up in the studio was met
with excited anticipation.

 

 “It was an intriguing little piece of music
that we used occasionally as a segue between songs,” Schools says of “St. Louis”. “It
immediately seemed like one of those classic Panic instrumentals that didn’t
need words, because it had a lot of melody and counterpoint already going on in
it. We just tried to capture a little of what we do onstage with that song in
the studio, so I think we only did two takes and took the better of the two.”

 

Inspiration came
in a variety of forms for the twelve tracks on Dirty Side Down. For album-opening “Saint Ex,” Bell says the spark came from a New York Times article his father
emailed to him about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the Little Prince.

 

“Apparently,
historians had found some evidence that took the mystery out of Saint Ex’s
disappearance during WWII,” Bell
recalls. “They assumed him to have been shot down, but they didn’t know where
and they didn’t know the circumstances. Well, they figured out where he was
killed, and a retired German pilot read about it and realized he was the guy
who in fact shot down Saint Ex. The freaky thing was that Saint Ex was one of
his favorite authors. They weren’t engaged at the time; they just happened to
be sharing the same air space. The German pilot just happened upon this French
plane and took it down. He identified himself as the guy who did it and
acknowledged his regrets and said if he’d known it was Saint Ex, he never would
have done it.”

 

Armed with this
incredible story, Bell creates a mood for “Saint Ex” with his lyrics and melody
that brilliantly convey the strange combination of stillness and chaos that
pilots feel being up in the clouds amid gunfire and war. The result is another
in a line of epic, multi-part, multi-melody masterpieces akin to “Driving
Song.”

 

“If you look at
songs like ‘Space Wrangler’ and ‘Barstools and Dreamers,’ we’ve always written
songs like that, but we’d kind of gotten away from it for a few years while we
were writing more songey songs,” Bell
says. “I guess it kinda started back with ‘Second Skin’ (off 2006’s Earth to America) when we got that
hunger to do some songs like that again. When ‘Her Dance Needs No Body’ popped
up during the Free Somehow sessions, it
came in with some parts, but it was so beautiful that we wanted to add more to
it to put it over the top and get a little ‘Stairway to Heaven’ going on. ‘Saint
Ex’ was the same way. John (Keane) said it was like mixing three different
songs.”

 

“There’s a bit
of a struggle for us when we go into the studio that’s always been there,”
Schools explains. “We get caught straddling this fence trying to recreate what
we do onstage while trying to keep in my mind that the studio is ultimately a
tool and there are opportunities working in the studio that will never be there
onstage. Songs like ‘Saint Ex’ remind us how important that difference is.”

 

Guitarist Jimmy
Herring – who’s been with the band since George McConnell’s departure in
2006  – helped inspire Bell to put lyrics to the album’s title
track.

 

“‘Dirty Side
Down'” came in during the eleventh hour. Jimmy had this little riff that we all
really liked, but we were already working on these other songs and didn’t think
we’d have the time to get around to it,” Bell
says. “On the last day of tracking, I asked Jimmy if I could write some lyrics
to it about riding motorcycles. I don’t know anything about motorcycles, so
it’s a little like Brian Wilson writing about surfing or sailing while he’s
hanging out in his bedroom. But Jimmy does, so with a little research and
meditation, a few images popped up. I’ve been listening to a lot of Leonard
Cohen recently, so some of his low vocal approach got mixed in there, which
seemed to fit with the rumble of the Harley.”

 

Herring’s
influence is felt throughout Dirty Side
Down
, whether it’s in the innovative guitar riffs and leads he plays on the
album or his laid-back demeanor.

 

“Our individual
personalities are pretty well established and different from each other, and there’s
no identity crisis with Jimmy,” Bell
says. “He knows who he is, and he’s as much of a freak as the rest of us are.
You’re not only dealing with a great musician, but he’s got a personality that’s
interesting and steady and enriches your friendship and knowledge of yourself
while you’re in his company. That’s really strong. There wouldn’t be any room
for wishy-washiness or somebody trying to find their way. Jimmy is well
established in his Jimmy-ness.”

 

“It’s been fun
to watch him become more and more a part of this band, because we all come to
this with preconceived notions of what the band should be based on our shared
history and then you have his perspective, which is new but is also a part of our
history in a lot of ways,” Schools says. “We got so wrapped up after Mikey
passed away in the processes of initiating a new band member, whether it was
George, John Keane, Randall Bramblett or Jimmy, that I think we lost sight of
what the band was and what made it unique and special. Look, Jimmy’s a
professional, he’s an academic and he’s an amazing technician, but he’s also an
understanding fisherman. Jimmy’s got great patience, and I think he learned
that growing up fishing.

 

“It takes
patience to walk this tightrope we walk by choosing to not play the same set
every night. Sometimes we do it beautifully. The nights where it doesn’t go so
well can be incredibly frustrating, but stepping back and philosophically
looking at what is afforded by that freedom is either a fucking horrible train wreck,
or the roof lifts off the place and everyone in attendance is elevated. I think
it’s worth taking that chance. And I think Jimmy does, too.”

 

Dirty Side Down also serves as an homage of sorts to
three of the band’s biggest collective influences: Jerry Joseph (“North”),
Bloodkin’s Danny Hutchens (“True to My Nature”) and the late great Vic Chesnutt
(“This Cruel Thing”). While the band has covered each songwriter’s material on
past recordings, the opportunity to present a song from each on the new album
seemed apropos considering the circumstances.

 

“Vic passed away
a week before we went in to record,” Bell
says. “It was really freaky, because, not to get too morbid, but we’d just lost
Garry’s (Vereen, long-time roadie) son over Labor Day and Wayne Sawyer, who
used to work with us. It was just boom, boom, boom. So we were all sitting
around the studio one day and someone just said, ‘Is there a Vic tune we could
do?’ John overheard it and started looking through the stuff he did with Vic
that he’d recorded but hadn’t released. We chose ‘This Cruel Thing’ because it
kind of fit the mood.”

 

“We had Vic’s
song and a Danny Hutchens song that Todd worked on with him and brought in,”
Schools says. “That’s when we started talking about the fact that we were
covering a song from Vic and a song from Danny, so why shouldn’t we do one of
Jerry’s songs? These are the three biggest songwriting influences in our band’s
life. There was no preconceived notion to cover all the bases, but we’ve been
playing ‘North’ for years and we can crush it. We wanted a bombastic rock song
on this album, and ‘North’ was it.”

 

With their 25th anniversary approaching next spring, Widespread Panic should be in
retrospective mode, reflecting on an unlikely career that’s found them selling
more than three million albums while grossing $20 million annually on tour and
breaking attendance records at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival,
Red Rocks Amphitheater and Atlanta’s
Phillips Arena. Ever the humble Southern gentleman, Bell seems unfazed by the impending
celebration, instead choosing to focus one day at a time.

 

“We take it as
it comes,” he says. “If the music feels vital to our experience, that’s pretty
much what we’re aiming for. We don’t play 300 gigs a year anymore. It’s 70-80
gigs a year, which is nice. We often do multiple nights in one city, so you get
to settle in a little bit more and create a little feeling of home inside your
hotel room. You got your computer, maybe some records and a guitar and your
little yoga mat. It ain’t exactly home, but it’ll do.”

 

“Home means
something different to everyone: comfort, serenity, or getting away from
everything. For some people, it’s the opposite. Coming home to some people is
fuckin’ torment: anxiety, scrutiny and responsibility,” Schools says. “Everyone
has a different definition, but for us, John Keane’s living room in Athens is home. That’s our
world. Brown Cat is there. This album was all about making everything
comfortable so we could be us. It’s been so long since there wasn’t something
else to consider, whether it’s breaking in a new guitar player, forging a new
relationship with a new producer, or being in a foreign country. It was time to
just get in the studio and be a band.”

 

[Photo Credit: Jason Thrasher]

 

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