Widespread Panic returns to the Fox Theatre next week, for four makeup concerts that take the place of the band’s New Year’s Eve shows, which were postponed last year due to Covid precautions.
Since then, the iconic jam band has released Miss Kitty’s Lounge, an album that consists of demo recordings made in 1990 with the original Widespread Panic lineup. Miss Kitty’s Lounge is much more than a hodgepodge of discarded songs or a historical document; it is a full-throated Widespread Panic album that was recorded, but not released, just as the band’s star was beginning to rise.
Widespread Panic’s John “J.B.” Bell recently chatted with ArtsATL about the new album and how it came together. “It blows me away,” he said. “We were just kids, just goin’ at it.” He also discussed his songwriting process, his three favorite non-Panic albums and the personal impact of Covid when the band had to shut down its heavy touring schedule.
The Athens-based jam band (with two members, Jimmy Herring and Duane Trucks, who have deep Atlanta roots) will perform shows Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, August 10-13, at the Fox Theatre.
ArtsATL: When Covid broke out, how did Panic pivot from its years of heavy touring to staying home under lockdown?
John Bell: At first, it was surreal. And the novelty that came with it was engaging and, in a way, freeing — to just be home and do the isolation thing. But as time went on, we started thinking, “This is our new situation. Maybe it’s temporary or, maybe, it will be ongoing.” So, then, we had to start thinking about our reality and making some adjustments.
ArtsATL: What were those early adjustments?
Bell: We had to look at changing some shows and we had to look at taking care of everybody who’s on the payroll. And we also had to consider all the folks who are subcontractors — people we have worked with for over 20 years, and are part of the family. So we wrote a few songs and started focusing on anything we could that had a positive vibe to it.
ArtsATL: The new Widespread Panic album is Miss Kitty’s Lounge, and its songs are demos the group recorded in 1990 with the original lineup. Did the pandemic play a role in the decision to release those songs?
Bell: We always knew those tapes existed. But Covid certainly gave that a nudge. We said, “Okay, we’re not playing. We don’t have a new album out. Let’s do some single recordings to put something out; to do something fresh.” Then we said, “What if we put those recordings out?”
ArtsATL: What was going on for Panic at the time you recorded those songs?
Bell: A couple of those songs were ones we were ready to release. At the same time, we were being courted by a couple of the record labels so it ended up being a very expensive demo session. Those were the original versions of the songs, and half of them eventually made it out for release. And the other half, we never really played after that.
ArtsATL: Do you credit the Miss Kitty’s Lounge demo with getting you signed with Capricorn Records?
Bell: Well, not entirely. We were getting some airplay on our independent record, Space Wrangler. So we were slightly successful and doing well on an independent level. We were already friends with Phil Jr. (Phil Walden Jr.) and when he persuaded his father, Phil Walden Sr. — the president of Capricorn Records — to sign us to his label, it was a landmark moment for us. We understood the difference between road-trippin’ ourselves and suddenly having a seven-record deal with dollar signs behind it, and a company dedicated to promoting us and the stability that came with it all. We knew it was a big deal.
ArtsATL: How was the experience of bringing Miss Kitty’s Lounge back to life?
Bell: It was fun. But it was a little nip and tuck there for a while. The tapes had sort of degraded a bit and you hear the stories that you have one chance with old tapes. You can wash them and pass them through the machine once before they really lose their quality. Luckily, we ran them onto digital immediately — and worked with it from there.
But back to Covid’s role. Because our world was turned upside down, everything was interesting to deal with. Even after we got through that initial process, we found out that some of the record plants had closed down because there was a shortage of plastic or vinyl — so all that became part of the equation. We had first thought about doing the record in June or July of 2020. So it was that long before we could actually make something happen.
ArtsATL: Do you think there’s anything serendipitous about the timing of Miss Kitty’s Lounge being released with the 20-year anniversary of the death of original guitarist Michael (“Mikey”) Houser and the two-year anniversary of the death of original drummer Todd Nance?
Bell: Maybe cosmically. We tend to celebrate our time together and our birthdays more so than our final days. But yeah, the universe has a hand in more than we realize. I mean, just try to do any of this alone — without other people’s help — or cosmic forces. Plus, it’s just more fun to believe in the magic, isn’t it?
ArtsATL: When you listen to Miss Kitty’s Lounge today, what sorts of things do you hear in your voice?
Bell: I was running away from any cliché melody line. I was kind of singing more the way Mikey played guitar — where it was a stream of consciousness on where your voice would go next. I still do that, but I also am a little more conscious of the melody line and control of notes. So there’s a little bit of a cringe factor for me listening to it. But when I listen to the band and how we were playing together, it blows me away. We were just kids, just goin’ at it.
ArtsATL: What words of advice might 60-year-old J.B. have for 30-year-old J.B.?
Bell: I guess one of the main things I would have told my younger self is to be good to and be nice to your bandmates. Although you’re going to have some clashes creatively and personality-wise, just ride that out and listen to each other. And be sure to not let any good song ideas slip by. Even if it’s just a little whiff. We all have phones now and you can get it down because if you don’t, that stuff goes away.
I’ve always had a little pocket notebook I jot things down in because, if you don’t, it’s like a dream. You say, “I’ll remember that” and then it’s gone. And, you know, I have fun looking back into that pocket notebook at all these pieces of ideas, long forgotten, and some are stupid and some I can’t even read.
ArtsATL: Do you always carry that little pocket notebook?
Bell: In some form. I used a little cassette recorder when “Coconuts” popped into my mind. I quickly hit record and got the melody line and some of the words and there it was. But I believe in the importance of getting something down that you can go back to later. And I think those little notes are more like what’s coming out of the subconscious, as opposed to trying to sit down and tell yourself to write a love song or something.
ArtsATL: Has the rebirth of Miss Kitty’s reminded you of anything you may have forgotten?
Bell: Yeah, that we also enjoy recording in the studio. Of course, we love to play live, but we were reminded that we’re musicians and friends and we have two equally fun playgrounds to go into. And with Miss Kitty’s, it was cool because we had such familiarity with the songs — having come in from playing them on the road heavily. So with one take, we got it like it was a live performance.
ArtsATL: Other than Panic albums, name three you love.
Bell: I can give you three real good ones, two of which I grooved on and became inspired by as a kid. One that would help me understand how to put a song together and become a songwriter would be Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything? That was basically the soundtrack to my Friday nights all through high school. And Van Morrison’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. He has so many great ones but I love that one for sure. And bringing it into the present, I’ve gotta include Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. She wrote it during Covid. It’s heavy on a woman’s perspective, great movement on the songs and she shocks you into paying attention to the songs. I really went on a little trip with every one of those songs and really dug it. Love the lyrics “Kick me under the table all that you want, I won’t shut up. I won’t shut up.” I really felt like I should apologize to my wife, Laura, not for anything in particular, but just for not getting it.
ArtsATL: How so?
Bell: Well, we’re kind of the same species, but when you look at it, men and women are almost two different species. I was born in ’62 so I remember things like “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” from My Fair Lady. So the Fiona record made me remember not to see things two-dimensionally — certain songs just reach out and have that something extra to them. And, it could be the performance had a sincerity to it that made you feel it went way deeper than just “somebody here wants to be a rock star.”
ArtsATL: Complete the sentence,“What makes me most proud about being Widespread Panic’s frontman is . . . ”
Bell: That I’m not a frontman. I’m standing in the middle. If you’re in a band, you came together with your talents and respect for one another. That will go a long way towards staying together and playing good music together and having fun doing it. And the payoff is you get far more satisfaction playing a song together and have it take on a new shape. You know something bigger is at play than just checking a box that your solo was so many measures.
ArtsATL: Panic’s annual New Year’s Eve shows are a huge deal with your fans. How difficult was it to make the decision to reschedule those four nights at the Fox Theatre?
Bell: It became a decision for everyone to decide what was the right thing to do. There were so many pressures and people and entities involved in the decision. This came back to soul-searching of keeping the fans as safe as possible and also worrying about all the livelihoods that are being affected by your decision. But it’s like a big game of chicken — with the venues, the promoters and all the different states and how they were handling protocols. Our decisions had always lined up with the promoters and what the protocol was, but that was gone. Now it was different. And we thought we were in the clear; then there was the massive outbreak of the Delta variant, so we had to make the very tough decision to reschedule.
ArtsATL: Have you learned anything specifically about yourself coming through Covid?
Bell: Because Covid was heavy and there was no lightheartedness around it, I had to personally rely on my instincts more as a tool and not just my rational mind. And that wasn’t comfortable. Because it’s your instincts which will tug at the back of your brain and often tell you to really choose another direction.
ArtsATL: Can Atlanta expect a proper celebration of 2022 coming up at the Fox?
Bell: Yeah, little delay there. I don’t know exactly how we’re going to approach it. It’s not going to be a full-on production of what New Year’s would look like. But it’ll be what four days of us at the Fox looks like. And there might be some balloons. I think they were still budgeted (chuckles).
Brenda Stepp is an Atlanta freelance writer who has written extensively about the jam-band scene.