Widespread Panic: The 1997 Relix Report
This week Widespread Panic released Wood, a two disc set of performances drawn from 2012’s acoustic tour. Today, we look back 15 years to the group’s first major Relix feature, which followed the release of the group’s album, Bombs & Butterflies.
Athens, Georgia has been the spawning ground for several powerhouse bands. Names like REM and the B-52’s are just two of the homegrown groups to emerge from these rolling hills, but get ready to add another one to the list—Widespread Panic.
With the release of its fifth album, Bombs & Butterflies, on Mercury/Capricorn Records, WSP has forged its mark in the world of jam-based rock. The release, which debuted at number 50 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, is WSP’s first album since 1994’s Ain’t Life Grand.
Bombs & Butterflies (the title is taken from a line in the song “Rebirtha”) is a tight, eclectic mix of blues, funk and improvisational rock. “We all did a little shape shifting,” says guitarist John Bell. “We did a long tour with Mercury. We were trying to figure out exactly what our position was in the whole situation and tried to get to know everyone ‘cause it was like a brand new family and that takes a little time [to get used to].”
Since its first gig on February 6, 1986 at the Mad Hatter Ballroom in Athens, the band—whose current lineup features John Bell (“J.B.”) on vocals and guitar; John Hermann (“Jo-Jo”) on keyboards and vocals; Michael Houser on guitar and vocals; Todd Nance on drums; Domingo Ortiz on percussion and vocals; and Dave Schools on bass and vocals—has toured virtually non-stop. Touring 120 days a year is a breeze for this band that, at one time, was on the road 300 days a year. “We’d come home a week before Christmas, till the week after Christmas and then start working again New Year’s Eve,” says Nance. “[We’d] pick a direction to go from Athens and leave Monday night or Tuesday morning and go all the way to North Carolina and then play our way back by Sunday,” adds Schools. “We’d have Monday off at home and then go towards Alabama.”
Although the band enjoys bringing its music to fans all over the country, life on the road can be tough. “Life is hard during the early touring years of a small band,” says Schools. “You’re sleeping in parking lots and camping and staking cash and doing whatever you can to get to the next show. I can remember not enough people were coming to see us, and the guy was emptying quarters out of the pool table to pay us. We’d play for pizza and beer.” Clearly things have been on the upswing for a while. “[Now] we’ve got so many of the things that we used to wish for. We’re on comfortable tour buses. We play in good venues. We have a good light show. We have the best crew and PA system,” confirms Schools.
Not only did the new studio album have to be worked around the band’s hectic touring schedule, the band had to find time to write new material for it. “We all write the songs,” says Schools, “usually at sound check. Someone has an idea, and it all comes together.”
This album, which includes both original and cover material, confers songwriting credits equally upon all the band members. The funk-filled opening cut, “Radio Child,” is followed by the soulful “Aunt Avis,” with special guest Vic Chesnutt (who also penned the song). Deadheads will especially enjoy the funkadelic sounds of “Rebirtha” and the final track “Greta,” which features Col. Bruce Hampton performing a pesticide ad. The radio friendly, debut single from the album, “Hope In A Hopeless World,” pays homage to gospel/blues legend Pops Staples. WSP’s rendition of this blues classic will be featured on the Detroit Red Wings/CIDR 93.9 The River compilation CD, Hope For Hockeytown II, proceeds from which will benefit the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Detroit.
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