Sweet Jam

Widespread Panic celebrate a quarter-century of noodling

Growing up in Shaker Heights and Pepper Pike, Widespread Panic frontman John Bell listened to Motown music beamed from an Ontario radio station, kept up on concert happenings with Jane Scott's weekly column in The Plain Dealer, and attended shows at Blossom Music Center and the Richfield Coliseum. "Every little step of the way was a big deal," he says. "We had some kind of guitar in the house ever since I can remember, whether it had strings on it or not. So there was [always] something to pretend with."

When he was in the ninth grade, Bell realized he could actually make some of his rock & roll dreams come true. He started playing guitar in his basement and "something sounded kinda OK to me," he recalls.

Those experiences stuck with him when he attended the University of Georgia, where he earned a few dollars at open-mic nights. "Playing the guitar was an escape," he says. "There was no pressure to it. So I started gravitating toward my no-pressure gig."

He hooked up with the members of Widespread Panic for their first gig — a charity show — in 1986. Combining rock and blues, and exploring the outer limits of their songs through lengthy jams, the band developed an expanding fan base through thousands of live performances. In an industry where artists rely more and more on concert dollars than record sales, Widespread Panic thrived as other groups fell apart. (Fittingly, one of the many cover songs the band performs in concert is Michael Stanley's "Let's Get the Show on the Road.")

With a nod to its past, but with an eye toward the future, the hard-touring sextet is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with headlining shows across the country. After wrapping up the tour, they plan on taking a break. "It's kind of important once in a while," says Bell.

"It's really good to step back from what you're doing, to remember who you are, to draw from other worldly experiences — even if they're the mundane everyday cooking-dinner experiences — to keep yourself a little well-rounded. Step back a little and [then] bring that back to the music."

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