By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
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Schools sees the growth of band-followers and tape traders as part of a natural search for identity and belonging in a world disinclined to provide such things. "The greater community's been splintered into a million different factions, with a million different choices. Where do you go?" he asks, noting that being the focus of such a need does place a burden on the musicians. "Sure," he says. "It drives me insane sometimes, especially when it happens away from a concert venue. But that's what we're here to do, to satisfy that want. We have a need and a want ourselves, and that's to play music together; if you're satisfying somebody else's needs and wants by doing that, then boy howdy, we both win, don't we?"
Panic, like many extemporaneous bands, receives a lot of attention for the covers they play; shows that fall on holidays are also deemed significant. Perhaps no recent show has better mixed these two tendencies than the band's Halloween show in New Orleans at the University of New Orleans' Lakefront Arena. Among the covers were versions of Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla," the Who's "Long Live Rock," and the Doors' "L.A. Woman."
Although Schools seems almost constantly on guard against reading too much into what Widespread does--he continually says things like "we're just a band" or "we just play"--he admits that on Halloween, things are different. "Usually we're not saying much more than we really like a song, but you can see a theme through the Halloween covers."
He elaborates. "The whole 'Godzilla' thing was Spinal Tap, a joke that very few people got. We were basically making fun: We had this six-inch tall Godzilla which we lowered on a tiny li'l thread while we were playing, and we had these two guys running around trying to get it just right, dressed up as Thing 1 and Thing 2 from Dr. Seuss. In a giant arena, it was a perfect moment." While Schools is reluctant to call such a move a dialogue--"I think we basically do it more to amuse ourselves"--he will, with prodding, admit that "there are always many levels" to the band's performance.
The group recognizes the audience's expectations. "Everyone looks at [Halloween] as a special show," Schools says, "so we do our part; we wear our costumes." Schools was Jack the Ripper, and lead singer John Bell--who had just finished reading A Confederacy of Dunces--was outfitted as Ignatius J. Reilly, the novel's hero.
This may sound similar to the capering that Phish indulges in, but it's actually quite a bit less structured than Gamehenge, which forms the basis of a Tolkien-esque mythos for hard-core Phish Heads. "They had a plan," Schools says of Phish. "We don't have a plan, except to play music. That [Gamehenge] is something for the Phish freaks to hold onto; with us, you just don't know what we're going to play or how we're going to play it. We're six completely different guys with our own way of doing things. That's Widespread Panic."
Although many of the jam bands chafe at allusions to the Dead (Phish in particular), Schools--a self-confessed Deadhead--is mindful of the problems that the Dead experienced as their popularity (and venues) grew. On the plus side, "things sound a lot better" at the arena level, he notes. "They smell a lot better too," he adds with a chuckle. "We don't get that beer-Lysol-and-vomit smell when we play anymore. It's more the smell of frying light cels [colored sheets of celluloid used to alter the light cast by stage lights, which are quite hot] and what's cooking for dinner."
The band is very aware of the need for control. Almost all official--and quite a few unofficial--communications contain an exhortation to "keep the scene clean." "We have to worry about it," Schools declares. "Our shows don't sell out that far in advance yet, and we don't have thousands of kids following us from show to show like Phish does. It seems that the scene that killed the Dead just kind of glommed onto Phish."
Phish's misfortune has worked to Widespread's advantage. "It's taken a lot of the heat off of us," Schools says. "The kids who do our tours are just so happy, they're in heaven. They'll try to keep those Phish kids away. When they [itinerant Phish fans] show up at a Panic show and just hang out in the parking lot and try to sell their wares--and not even go to the show--that really pisses off some of these Panic kids."
Like the Dead scene of the '60s and '70s--before the mainstream discovered the band--the WP scene is self-contained and close to self-cleaning. "A lot of the real scenesters, who've been making the shows for a couple years, are very guarded; they don't tell anybody about this band. It's their little thing," Schools says. "We end up with what's like this little private guard that makes sure the lot stays clean and that we don't have any dumb-asses openly dealing drugs; that way, the venue stays happy. Then, even if we don't sell out, we can always come back and maybe sell out next time; if not, we can come back again. The point is that people can show up at the parking lot at six in the morning, getting ready to have their fun, and the venue people don't worry."
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