Widespread Panic has experienced plenty of ups and downs since emerging from lockdown and heading back out on tour in June of 2021. After delivering a string memorable live performances in Colorado and North Carolina over the summer, the tour came to a sudden halt when frontman John Bell tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of a scheduled August run in Austin, TX.
The band cleared its schedule for the next few weeks, postponing runs in Napa, CA and New York, NY to 2022 and pushing the Austin shows to October 2021. Now that everyone has been given a clean bill of health, the band is getting ready for a busy touring schedule in the year’s final few months.
Ahead of Widespread Panic’s return to the stage in Memphis, Live For Live Music Panic Correspondent Otis Sinclair caught up with JB about his COVID-19 experience, getting back on the road, and more.
Otis Sinclair: John Bell, this is Otis Sinclair, Live For Live Music‘s Widespread Panic Correspondent. How are you today?
John Bell: Cool. Is that your stripper name?
Otis Sinclair: Especially in this day and age of the internet, you get a lot of kooky people. Well, I appreciate your time. I’m assuming you’re in Memphis already for Mempho Festival. Have you sound-checked yet?
John Bell: We’re here fiddling around, getting reacquainted, but we’re on the festival grounds which is kinda cool. We haven’t tested our ears yet, we haven’t played loudly. We tinkered around and talked and thought about what songs to play and stuff like that. Mostly, what you do when you’re getting reacquainted.
Otis Sinclair: I love it. Well, first things first, I wanted to ask you, how are you feeling?
John Bell: Oh, great! I came up positive [for COVID-19] the morning of Austin’s [postponed] shows about six weeks ago or something like that. That was our plan: If something popped, we were gonna pack it up and regroup. Luckily, I had my vaccinations and stuff so it was very short-lived. I went straight into isolation until I came out clear. Didn’t feel bad—if I didn’t know it was COVID, I probably would have popped a couple aspirin and gone about my business. But this is the age of COVID, so that was something to work into the equation.
Otis Sinclair: Was it just you or were there other crew members who tested positive?
John Bell: Just me initially. A few days later, two of the crew tested positive.
Otis Sinclair: I’m assuming everybody’s well now?
John Bell: Yep. We were all vaccinated well before we tried going back to Red Rocks in June.
Otis Sinclair: Tell ya what, I missed you guys at the Beacon, you guys were supposed to be here a few weeks ago. But I did catch the shows in Wilmington, so I’m glad I did that before things got postponed.
John Bell: Dig it! So, we’re trying to keep on keeping on, but we gotta keep the space. For ourselves and for the fans, that’s what we’re trying to do. That also includes having to postpone on the fly…
Otis Sinclair: …which is tough on the fans as well as the band.
John Bell: It’s brutal for everybody. The promoters, and obviously the fans… Being in that much of a flux is not real hip to the industry in general. You’d like to have a little bit of stability. But right now, stability comes in people being able to move with what’s occurring at the time. … It’s been pretty hip. Up and down the line—the flexibility from our vantage point, flexibility from promoters and venues—everybody has been very understanding when stuff goes down. And support, beyond understanding.
Otis Sinclair: That’s something I wanted to touch upon. You guys announced that you specifically had tested positive. Is there a reason you choose to do that instead of keeping it vague, like, “a member of the band?”
John Bell: The reason for that was so people didn’t have to be guessing around. I didn’t [feel] the need to be anonymous about it.
Otis Sinclair: Well, I think the fans appreciated the transparency. Judging by their reactions, there were a lot of well-wishers and people hoping you’d bounce back quickly.
John Bell: It was nice. I heard through people in our office. I don’t engage in social media but I heard secondhand. It was all very heartwarming for a cat with the sniffles.
Otis Sinclair: With the updated Austin dates, October is shaping up to be a very busy month for Widespread Panic. You’ve got twelve shows lined up.
John Bell: We rescheduled the Austin shows and that’s coming up next after this weekend. Then, we have our traditional Milwaukee and Halloween runs at the end of the month. We’re getting ready to kick off the holiday season.
Otis Sinclair: I’m sure it’s going to be bizarre and festive, just the way it should be.
John Bell: That’s the plan. We plan to be engaged. We have a few little tricks up our sleeves. It’s Halloween, so we kind of indulge on that one.
Otis Sinclair: Any comment on the Andy Kaufman Halloween prank with JoJo and Tony Clifton? That was some reaction you got. Left the audience with serious trust issues.
John Bell: I will neither confirm or deny if that was a prank. It’s nice to be an old fart and have fun like a kid.
Otis Sinclair: Can you talk about the safety protocols for the rest of the tour?
John Bell: It varies from state to state, venue to venue. The numbers of cases and percentages of vaccinations go into the formula. Basically, vaccination or proof of a negative test will be required for admission. Some venues we had rapid tests available, but that’s not always feasible at every place. Every joint’s a little different. We keep updating on our own website and we do the best we can to nudge the promoters and the venues to keep their websites updated, too. [singing] ‘It’s a family affair!”
Otis Sinclair: Can you talk about this upcoming album, this demo from Winter of 1990, Miss Kitty’s Lounge?
John Bell: That’s been an adventure. … This is a product of COVID. We were sitting around trying to figure out how to stay busy considering some of what we do was taken away from us, temporarily. We can still do what we do, but we gotta do it in other ways. This particular thing was looking back at an old demo that was pretty well mixed and mastered back in the day and seeing if it was viable to revisit that and put it out. We owned it fully, so it wasn’t tied up in any of the multitude of record companies that we’ve been with over the years, and there was some good stuff on there. It was the beginning of some of the songs that made it to our original [self-titled] Capricorn label release.
Otis Sinclair: Now, this was before JoJo was part of the band…
John Bell: Yeah, this one was before JoJo [Herman]. I think Sunny [Ortiz] joined the band by then. It was the five of us. … We were so familiar with the songs cause we were writing them and honing them when we were on the road. So when we went into John [Keane’s] studio, it wasn’t like we were writing or building them at the studio. We might have been tweaking them a little but we were just thrashing em. We were young and full of vim.
Otis Sinclair: You had Page McConnell from Phish on organ for a couple of the tracks?
John Bell: He came down and played a couple of things. If you had the liner notes, you can see specifically what he played on.
Otis: I’m looking at ’em. You’ve got Randall Bramblett on sax…
John Bell: We played “Liza’s Apartment”, or “LA”, I guess it’s called. Back then, you hand somebody a cassette to learn the tune, and [Randall] said, “I was sure that cassette was out of time because it’s in such a weird key.” But he jumped on it. Lotta memories going back there. You can tell we were playing a lot on the road cause we were all over the songs.
Otis Sinclair: On a more somber note, we were all crushed by Danny [Hutchens’] passing, and many fans were moved to tears by your Bloodkin tribute at Red Rocks. It must be hard to lose a musical peer like him. Anything you want to say about that?
John Bell: It’s beyond a peer. Cats like him and Vic [Chesnutt], you look up to ’em. The imagery and stuff is just fantastic, they were incredible songwriters. … Part of being in rock and roll and part of being older, we are sadly losing some friends. Danny and Eric [Carter] have been with us since we formed as a band. Bloodkin was right there with us, sharing rehearsal spaces, and going to parties together, that kind of thing. You want to find a way to work through your stuff and pay honor to your buddy at the same time.
Otis Sinclair: John, I really appreciate your time. I wish you nothing but the best. I hope everybody’s getting back on their feet and ready for a good rest of the year. I know the fans are ravenous.
John Bell: I hope they are ravenous and careful. Keep themselves as safe as possible out there so we can all keep doing this.
Widespread Panic returns to the road for a busy month of October with a two-night headlining appearance at Mempho Music Festival this weekend. For a full list of upcoming 2021 tour dates, head here.