Prone to Rock: 30 Years In, Widespread Panic Still Wields a Mighty Jam Sword

John Bell speaks with the same gentle, Southern cadence that marks his vocal work with Widespread Panic. He and the band carry the DNA of Athens, Ga., with them wherever they land, often playing soul-stirring rock 'n' roll with that improvisatory jam-band mastery. But singer-guitarist JB will always have a bit of Cleveland in his heart.

He grew up in Shaker Heights, learning the ways of the world through the North Shore lens and graduating from University School before trucking South and finding himself at the center of a bubbling stew of rock creativity. Now, nearly 30 years later, Widespread Panic has notched firm footing in the annals of rock music and the nebulous fields of post-Dead jam bands. The band brings its summer tour to Cleveland this week, where JB first plucked a guitar string so many years ago.

He'll be visiting family and making the typical in-from-out-of-town rounds, to be sure, but he adds that he tries to look at all Panic gigs on the same sort of plane. "I'm probably a little more aware of myself because it's Cleveland. That's where I grew up experiencing live music for the first time. That's where daydreams took place. Even some nightmares, but..."

A stroll through JB's lyrics over the years reveals more upbeat American vibes than anything else. Panic is a good-times band. And JB is a good-times guy. Over the phone from the band's tour stop in Raleigh, N.C., JB recounts memories of Cleveland's impact on his early musical education.

"Shoot, when we were tykes, the Michael Stanley Band was just getting in gear," he says. "You had places like the Agora and Blossom and the Coliseum, of course, the Richfield Coliseum — that's no longer with us, is it?"

Indeed, the ol' Coliseum shuttered in 1994 and met its wrecking ball demise five years later. By that point, JB & Co. were well into their heady tenure as a preeminent live band that must not be missed. The early-1990s HORDE Tour rests as a major landmark in the band's rise to icon status; it was back then, hitting the road alongside the likes of Phish and Blues Traveler, that the guys from Georgia began to cement their status as jam luminaries.

Not bad for a couple of kids who met at the University of Georgia and just happened to like rock music. ("Man, if we got free burgers during the gig and didn't leave hungry — and maybe with a couple bucks in our pocket — that was a good gig. That was a good night," JB says with a laugh.)

Over the years the band has dabbled in all sorts of live formulae. Recently, they've performed mini-tours using only acoustic setups (the Wood Tours). Now and then, they hole up at major U.S. music festivals. They were early adopters and supporters of Tennessee's Bonnaroo. Each show and each tour has carried with it a certain sense of magic and wonder — one that never seems to fade.

And, per the rituals of touchstone jam bands, each show is entirely different from all others.

Even within set lists, they can cover a great deal of ground. Songs like "Space Wrangler" and "Porch Song" represent an earlier aesthetic, one that might blend well with a late-night cruise across Southern freeways. The chord structures are simple, but not simple-minded. Slightly later tunes like "Tall Boy" and "Airplane" (circa 1994) loosen structurally and keep the band focused on wide-open improvisation.

Widespread Panic bears a lot of gravity in the jam scene. They picked up the Allman Brothers-influenced corner of the community and bent it to their pleasure. Put simply, the essence of Widespread Panic is sort of a world music take on something like "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," ramped up to 11 and cut with psychedelia. The band hasn't dropped a new album since 2010 (though JB says they're working toward one now), but they continue to release archived set lists from earlier days. In these multitrack recordings — or at a show like the upcoming Nautica date — one gets a vivid feel for the musicians' dedication to American rock and all of its many tangents.

In their collective history lie the imprints of so much tradition. The band's modus operandi remains one of pushing those boundaries into new, creative terra incognita.

In mid-2002, tragedy struck when founding lead guitarist Mikey Houser died of pancreatic cancer. He had contributed a very distinct vibe on lead — emotional, bluesy, patient. With his sly smile and his hunched-over commitment to the craft at hand, Houser was quintessential WSP.

George McConnell joined for a few years, bridging the gap between those years and latter-day Widespread Panic. Since then, former Aquarium Rescue Unit guitarist Jimmy Herring has picked up Houser's mantle and run with it. He shreds, of course, as is the Panic way, but he's clearly and quite carefully paying homage to everything Houser did when the band was ascending in the early days. "Mikey was a wonderful soul," Herring would later say in tribute. "He was an incredible stylist. He had his own sound, and his approach is so singular and so unique. He loves the blues — you can hear that there's blues in everything that he's playing."

In the ensuing decade, JB and the band (Herring on lead, Dave Schools on bass, Todd Nance on drums, Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz on percussion, and JoJo Hermann on keys) have continued to build their temple. As soon-to-be evidenced at this week's show in Cleveland, there's something larger-than-life about a band with such history and reverence for music just leaning back and lighting up the skies with song.

widespread panic 7:30 p.m., Thursday, June 19, Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, 1231 Main Ave., 216-861-4080. Tickets: $33.50,

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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