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10 Minutes with Widespread Panic

Bassist Dave Schools and world’s largest ball of twine
Jim Caligiuri, 12:45pm, Wed. Oct. 23, 2013
photo by Andy Tennille
Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East in 1971? Close – Widespread Panic 42 years later.

Six-headed Southern rock monster Widespread Panic hits ACL Live at the Moody Theater this weekend for two long sold-out shows. Here’s a brief conversation I had with bassist Dave Schools, whose easygoing, straightforward style makes him one of my favorite people to interview.

Geezerville: The shows this weekend have been sold out since they went on sale. Any thoughts on why Austin remains such a great town for you? I remember going to see Widespread Panic at the Backyard before the turn of the century and having a great old time.

Dave Schools: I think you answered the question right there. A great old time is generally what we’re aiming for – at any show. In Austin, people may be seeking a great old time generally. You can just walk down the street and hear music coming from a million places. It’s been really cool to watch it evolve, because it was already a music town when we started playing there.

I can’t remember the first time we played there, but I remember playing Liberty Lunch, opening for somebody. Then we watched the Backyard grow from really being the backyard of a club to being a world-class music venue and then turning into the parking lot of the Best Buy. Best Buy would sell your records, but they couldn’t have the rock & roll music in the parking lot [laughs].

I don’t know how many times we played Austin City Limits, but there was one time when we played for Halloween where they did the studio with bats and flying witches for the broadcast. That was pretty cool. The new Austin City Limits has also turned into a world-class venue and everybody there is just so nice.

G: I was going to ask you about your guitar player Jimmy Herring. He’s been with the band since 2007, but he still seems to be the new guy. Why do people still think of him like that?

DS: I think the latest member to join the band remains the new guy until another new member joins the band.

G: I saw him play with Phil Lesh & Friends at the Backyard probably 10 years ago and remember being impressed with his style.

DS: He’s been around forever. He started with Col. Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Unit and did the Horde tours. He’s from Atlanta and knew what we were about, so it was easy for him to fit in. Seven years later he’s still the new guy, no matter what.

G: The band took 2012 off. What was the effect of that?

DS: It’s only the second time we’ve done that in nearly 30 years. So really, the effect was you do whatever it is you do. Some of us watched our kids graduate from high school or fucked around in the garden. Some of us did solo records. I was playing with Mickey Hart. The long and short of it is that we were gathering up some new skills, new ways of looking at music and bringing that back into the fold. This past year of touring was seeing how that works into what we do.

I sure learned a lot rhythm-wise playing with Mickey Hart. To bring some of that back to the world of Widespread Panic is reinvigorating. Jimmy recorded a solo record; Jo Jo played some with the North Mississippi Allstars. Even if you spend six months watching things grow you’re going to bring something back – a new way of looking at things, of nurturing things, of allowing things to happen. Obviously you want to learn new things when you get back together. So you soak up everything that everybody brings to the table.

That’s what’s been going on this year: Integrating and learning and taking a new approach. Now we’ve got some new song ideas and we’ve got our sea legs back. The plan is to finish out the fall and get into a pretty serious songwriting session right after New Years.

G: You or someone else in the band prepares a set-list before every show. Is that the way it’s always been done? Have you ever tried to go onstage without a set-list?

DS: We tried it that way in the beginning. When we were young and green, we had a basket full of cover songs that were basically the launching points on how to play together. We knew those songs and we knew how to play together on them, but we never knew how to end them [laughs]. Eventually we’d replace those songs with those that we wrote, and by the time of our third or fourth record things started to get big and we didn’t think it was cool to have a huddle after each song to figure out what to play next.

It was probably ’94 or ’95 when we finally figured out we needed a set-list. We’d do one set, take a break and judge how things went with the audience, and draw up a second set. That went on for a long time until Mike Houser passed away. Then we had new guitarists in the band and we’d draw up the whole show beforehand.

I do the set-list most nights and Jimmy sits there with me so he can put his book together. He’s adamant about being confident in what he’s playing and I think that’s a wonderful quality. The thing about a set is that it’s a road map going from point A to point B and you don’t have to take the same road to go from A to B every time.

You can take detours and certainly look at the world’s largest ball of twine if you want to. That’s what we do. What’s between the songs on the set-list is what excites most of us.

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