Widespread Panic’s John Bell talks Billy Bob Thornton and R.E.M.

Widespread Panic brings their beloved show to the Joint.
Photograph by Andy Tennille/Courtesy
Matt Wardlaw

It was 30 years ago that the members of the band that would become Widespread Panic embarked on a journey, having first come into contact as students near the University of Georgia campus. They’ve since released a dozen studio albums, most recently 2015’s Street Dogs, maintaining a huge fanbase and racking up impressive accomplishments related to their road work—like selling out Colorado’s historic Red Rocks Amphitheatre for nearly 50 shows. Closer to home, a banner hangs in the rafters of Atlanta’s Philips Arena for the 18 times the band has filled that venue to capacity. And Widespread Panic has remained a top-50 touring act for the entire past decade, according to industry publication Pollstar.

The band returns to Las Vegas for three shows this weekend after announcing that it plans to scale back on touring next year. In a phone interview, vocalist/guitarist John Bell told us these five interesting things, and then some.

He sees Widespread Panic’s fanbase as adventure-seeking and community-building. “I think there’s a certain group of people in every generation that gravitates toward adventure in their lives as well as in their music. We try to do that, too. And those type of people tend to find themselves and create friendships and bonds. They like to get together and have fun, whether we’re there or not (laughs). We’re pretty lucky that we get to be on the receiving end of that.”

The band has stayed popular without hit radio singles, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t chased radio success. “That’s part of the rock ’n’ roll daydream. We still try to position ourselves and have something that the radio would groove on. We’re a little bit older now, so our music isn’t exactly what folks are listening to, and radio’s changed so much; people have their own ways of listening to their music and they’re not dependent on radio. It’s kind of an old-fashioned thing.”

Thanks to the festival scene, Widespread Panic has gotten the chance to share the stage with many of its musical heroes. “It’s a matchmaking kind of thing that the Lockn’ Festival puts together. You see who you’d like to play a set with and play their music. We’ve done that now with Steve Winwood, John Fogerty and Jimmy Cliff. We were definitely familiar enough with these cats to know we’d love to do something with them, and they probably asked around to see if we were worth their time (laughs).”

Widespread Panic learned from R.E.M. “We were kind of the black sheep of the Athens [Georgia] scene. The B-52s had started kicking in with their fun, playful party music, and then R.E.M. came in with this mysterious sound, songs that had a freshness to them that was really hip. We were still playing rock ’n’ roll in the traditional sense, born out of the ’60s. R.E.M.—Bill [Berry] and Mike Mills—they’d come over once in a while and party at our band house. We’d seen that they had forged a very band-like atmosphere, so we emulated that. Sharing songwriting credits equally among members, that was inspired by R.E.M.—we saw it on the albums and we went, ‘Yeah, that’s a good way.” Instead of Lennon and McCartney or Mick and Keith, this was going to be all-inclusive.”

Billy Bob Thornton once directed a concert video for the band (and gave Bell and his mates an advanced look at a famous character). “That was actually the first film he directed. He’s a very straight-ahead, normal guy as far as being real with you. He was confiding in us and showing us this idea he had for a character of a movie [that he wanted to make]. He went right into his little Karl impression, [from] Sling Blade and we were like, ‘Okay, yeah, that’s pretty good, Billy.’”

WIDESPREAD PANIC with Dirty Dozen Brass Band. July 8-10, 8 p.m., $55-$175. The Joint, 702-693-5222.

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