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Dave Schools and John Bell:
An HTN #71 Preview

By Frank Etheridge
As a sneak peek at Hittin' the Note's cover story for Issue #71, we have excerpted parts of the wonderful interviews with Dave Schools and John Bell of Widespread Panic - good stuff indeed!

Talking in the Tipitina's green room before a Stockholm Syndrome gig in August, Dave Schools waxes reflective on various artists that have shared songs and stage with Widespread Panic - including former bandmate George McConnell. John Bell and John ‘JoJo' Hermann come up, too.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band: "I realized that they had their own language as a horn ensemble. They could come up as a group and get into an improvisational situation and use their group mind to stack harmonies and do horn parts in stabs. The tours with did with those guys were just pure, unadulterated fun. How could it not be? Horns were something we had always heard in our music. When it was cooking with them and us, it was pretty powerhouse. Some fucking swamp-ass, horny horn, greasy music."

Dottie Peoples: "Boy, talk about the power of belief. What she did on the 'Til the Medicine Takes record [vocals on "All Time Low"] was wonderful. A whole other dimension to our music that we never envisioned: a wailing gospel vocalist and choir. Then the moment onstage at Bonnaroo [June 22, 2002], which I've heard people actually say they're sick of me talking about, but if you weren't there - on stage or in that crowd of 80,000 - when she went into "Testify," it was amazing. Catharsis. It was really wonderful. I'd love to work with her and the [People's Choice] choir again. It evokes a special feeling while we're playing that I think is probably matched by anyone that's hearing it. She's really got something special."

Jerry Joseph: "I personally never had an appreciation for the gift of songwriting, for the craft of songwriting, until I met people like Jerry Joseph and Vic Chesnutt and Danny Hutchens. What I listened to a lot, what I was drawn to, was stuff like the Allman Brothers - really serious, technical, musical prowess and improvisation. The lengthy explorations of the Grateful Dead. Led Zeppelin. All the kind of stuff a kid growing up in the '70s was probably listening to.

When I met these guys, a light bulb popped as far as what songwriting really is. It's alchemy. I've been lucky enough to collaborate with Jerry and write songs together with him. To watch the way that he literally produces melodies and word combinations out of the ether, that's amazing. What it did was give me a much greater appreciation for other songwriters, people like Robert Hunter. It's a magical gift. I don't really use the term magic too much, but watching Jerry do his thing, it's amazing. To me, as someone who now realizes that you can't have a jam without a melody, and there is no song without a melody, it's pretty amazing.

I feel sometimes it's a gift and a curse. Obviously with Vic, it was a burden. A lot of his songs seemed like an attempt to take some of the weight off of his shoulders. If you talk to songwriters, I'm sure you'll get a million different answers as to why they do what they do. Jerry, for him, it seems to be some sort of absolution ritual. It's very religious. The songs are very personal to him. I don't think he could write fiction if he tried. He was telling me the other night he can't write character songs. He's written maybe three character songs where he's singing from somebody else's point of view. It's not really his bag. Everybody likes to point their finger at Jerry Joseph and say, ‘Oh, he's so ego-centric.' But, no, that's what songwriters do. They write about what they know. And for Jerry, it's the sum total of his experience. I really cherish our friendship and I cherish our ability to work together. Certainly, I cherish the sort of strength his songs have added to the Widespread Panic repertoire."

John Bell: "This is someone else who can't write fiction. He strays away from a lot of the accepted templates for songwriting. He doesn't like repeated chorus ad nauseum. He really doesn't like hooks. The sort of things the music industry, the record label artist representative will show up in the studio and say, ‘I don't hear hooks. I don't hear something that will make it a single.' And JB's like, ‘Well, good.' I picture John Bell as an observational songwriter. He reports on what he sees in a poetic way. It's almost impressionistic in the way he paints words and emotions out of the feelings he's experiencing."

John ‘JoJo' Hermann: "Now, see, JoJo IS a character writer. JoJo can sit in a bar and scribble an idea down on a napkin, possibly gotten from something he saw on the news, or someone who just walked by, or stumbled by. Or some situation a friend of his got into. He's exceptional at reporting from someone else's point of view. I feel sometimes that a lot of the songs he writes are ... not necessarily apologies ... but more like responses to accusations. Like, somebody will point their finger at him and say, ‘You are blahbbity blah blah. You did something.' And then out comes this song that's like ‘Well, no I didn't.' Or, ‘Here what was really happening and why you got it wrong.'

Between Houser, Bell and John Hermann are three entirely different methodologies of songcraft, and that's pretty cool to have that in one band."

George McConnell: "One of the sweetest guys I've ever met. Someone who tries really hard. He's just an all-around good person. I wouldn't have wanted to stand in those shoes. And he was more than willing to accept that mantle of responsibility. It was out of love and being part of a family that he did it. You know, things happen and things don't work out, and I wish that they had worked out differently, but I certainly love the guy a lot and really enjoyed the close time we had together on the road."

John Bell:
Word Association

Calling just before noon the morning after Widespread Panic's first of two shows in Savannah, GA in October, the ever-gracious John Bell indulged an interviewer's request for an exercise of imagery association through phrases culled from Widespread Panic songs.

"I'm hoping I could spit out a phrase or a sentence and you could tell me about the first thing that pops up in your head." - Frank Etheridge

"I'll try to negotiate with my filter to grab the first thing that pops in." - John Bell

"Bombs and Butterflies" (from "Rebirtha"): "The album cover."

"Venus light is rising" (from "Chilly Water"): "I'm looking at a crescent moon and the star."

"Dance of the seven veils" (from "Time Waits"): "That scene from Stark Trek way back with the green Amazon women, in the original Star Trek series. There's a scene, which is one of those harem-like scenes. That's not necessarily what it means in the song, but that's the image that just flashed when you mentioned it."

"A boy who can't forget her smell" (from "Proving Ground"): "That really gets more not so much imagery, but that idea of how powerful the memory reflex is with smells. You know, perfumes and stuff like that. Or any smell you want to conjure - it's your own memory."

"Old friends, heroes, and lifetimes" (from "Heroes"): "That is ... that image .. in my mind ... now ... this is the image that's coming up right now. I don't want it to be confused with the image that might have come up at the time of doing the song. This is the image that's coming up for me right now: I'm a little tyke, probably less than 10, walking out as the garage doors open and just yell out to mom, ‘Hey, I'm going out to play,' back in the day when you could do that."

"Give me a hand here, Michael" (from "Gimme"): "Well, Mike wrote that tune. There's a little Newton's Third Law thrown in there. Basically, if you can help someone up, in so doing, it can be an uplifting experience for you as well."

Look for the complete interviews with Dave and John in Hititn' the Note #71, coming soon!

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