Now that R.E.M. has called it quits, does that make Widespread Panic the most famous band from Athens, Ga., still working?
“Well, don’t count The B-52s short or The Georgia Bulldog Marching Band,” said singer-guitarist John Bell, a former Northeast Ohio resident and 1980 University School graduate. “It’s a good town to have made your start in. It was always very supportive because before we were able to take our gig out on the road, we had to learn how to do it right there in front of Athens’ crowds.”
For Bell, his musical past actually dates back to growing up during the ’70s in Cleveland. He fondly talks about his first concert ever, seeing Bread open for America at Blossom Music Center (“I’m dating myself,” he said). He also saw James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Frank Zappa at the same outdoor venue, where decades later his band Widespread Panic would headline shows. The outfit has come quite a way since the mid-'90s when it made its Cleveland debut playing Peabody’s DownUnder.
Now the popular jam band is mounting its 25th anniversary tour, which comes to the Rubber City for a show Saturday at the Akron Civic Theatre. The act is still supporting its 2010 effort, “Dirty Side Down,” its 11th studio offering that teems with instrumental interplay, fanciful guitar sounds and heavy melodies. Standout tunes include the breezy “St. Louis Jam,” the gritty “Clinic Cynic” and the guitar-heavy “Cotton Was King.”
“Our only specific goal was we were going to keep it in house with predominantly just the band playing their instruments,” Bell said. “So more of a bare-naked band as it is. We indulged a little where I would do multiple vocals and our producer, John Keane, sat in with his pedal steel guitar, but he’s kind of an in and out sixth member of our band.”
The one thing about Widespread Panic is even though the group’s last effort is “Dirty Side Down,” that doesn’t mean the band is playing the majority of the album. This is, after all, one of the hardest-working jam bands on the touring circuit for the past decade. This thought leads us to recent news or conjecture regarding the group’s future.
The Internet has been ablaze of late with fans worrying their favorite jam band is going to take a Phish-like hiatus or even, gasp, call it quits after the current tour. When asked point blank if Widespread Panic is breaking up, Bell sets the record straight, while taking a nice jab at those overzealous diehards.
“No, that’s not in our plans,” said Bell, in a somewhat annoyed tone. “We’re just taking a little time off to regenerate and refresh our batteries. They kind of co-create their own little world, these blogosphere folks. If people tend to have a little too much time to play with, they tend to make up their own scenarios and view them as facts, but it’s not all their fault because the media has been quick to misquote and mislead, too, just to sell some magazines. So whatever — we’re just taking a year off to do something else and come back to share different experiences.”