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Volume 90, Issue 91
Tuesday, March 18, 1997
Crunchy guitars spread the word
Gazette file photo
YOU GOTTA KNOW WHEN TA FOLD 'EM. The members of Widespread Panic take a pit stop on a recent tour
By Dan Gladman
"All those bands have really grown into their own little success stories."
John Bell is talking about the five rock 'n' roll bands which made up the first Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere festival in the summer of 1992 Aquarium Rescue Unit, Blues Traveler, Phish, Spin Doctors and the group Bell fronts, Widespread Panic. The tour loomed in the shadow of its larger alternative sister, Lollapalooza, enabling HORDE to establish itself to a less-commercial audience.
"The impetus for [the original HORDE], to begin with, was just so we could all get a chance to listen to each other play because we were all scattered across the country having different schedules," Bell says. "So we could really give somebody a great value for their ticket."
That value was enjoyed mostly by casual fans and stragglers from a successful Grateful Dead summer tour. By that summer, word was spreading among the Dead crowd that young jam bands were causing a kerfuffle in the psychedelic sphere of music a sphere which, though ignored mercilessly by the mainstream, had endured for almost three decades.
Unfortunately, in the face of popularity and Lollapalooza's decline, the HORDE welcomed inevitable financial success and its sidekick bastardization. The tour hit an all-time low in 1996 by including legend-in-his-own-mind Lenny Kravitz on the bill.
Widespread Panic dropped its affiliation with the HORDE after the 1993 tour and continued its endless touring on its own, maintaining relationships with like-minded groups, but pushing straight ahead on its own accord. The band, on Nashville, Tennessee's Capricorn label, became one of the United States' consistently-grossing live acts.
Its fourth album, Bombs and Butterflies, to be released in Canadian record stores on March 25, reveals a sound which has not changed magnificently over the years, but has grown and taken its place among the most important roots rock bands of the day. "Rebirtha" details WSP's obsession with jamming and the soaring "Greta" exemplifies the group's ability to spotlight an instrument (organ) which otherwise would not be at the lead.
From Athens, Georgia, the band faces quick quirks from critics who label it a southern rock band. "The best reason you could call us a southern rock band is cuz we're from the south, but geography doesn't really make the music."
But growing up in the south with a guitar in one's hand must mean some influence from the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, perhaps even Creedence Clearwater Revival.
"We do have a traditional instrumentation," Bell allows. Two guitars, bass, keyboard instruments, percussion and a little clav and Wurlitzer set the roster of toys. Improvisation is a key similarity to such older bands too, but the texture of WSP's songs are more modern, the approach more risqué and the output dazzling. Panic's guitar-crunching rivals any band in the world.
"When you're improvising, that's where your individuality really does come out," Bell says. "That action and reaction makes you have to be focused on not just regurgitating something that's on the album. That's when you're really gonna be yourself in front of the fans."
To please its fans the hardcore ones who follow from city to city and tape concerts on DAT recorders WSP must vary its set list and keep the flow fresh. But the band does this already, for its own sake. "We try to keep it all pretty well composted and turned.
"For like eight years we were pretty dogmatic about not having a set list." With a ready repertoire of about 120 songs, the band now charts a show before setting sail.
The Athens music scene exploded with the mega-success of REM and the B-52s before it. Bell says a one-time art rock scene evolved into something more serious when success loomed in the distance. While his band likely doesn't have platinum aspirations, it continues its steady touring pace and is expected to keep up its success at the ticket office and on the stage.
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