Widespread Panic gets down on the Valley’s desert vibe

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There’s something magical about Arizona, according to John Bell, Widespread Panic’s guitarist/vocalist. And there’s nothing the Georgia-bred rock band likes more.

“Arizona has a good vibe to it, so the people who come out carry that good vibe with them,” Bell says in a recent phone interview. “They’re laid back. A lot of those Southwestern states—New Mexico and Arizona—have a lot of history going on like tribal history and just the geographic formations themselves, with the combo of deserts and mountains way off in the distance.

“That has a celebratory atmosphere with it. We’re always up for that—always up for a celebration.”

Widespread Panic will have the chance to celebrate with thousands of its closest fans when it performs on Sunday, March 29, the last day of the McDowell Mountain Music Festival.

Bell spoke to College Times about recording his band’s first album of new material in five years as well as the perils of hitting the studio in the winter.

College Times: I understand you’re going in the studio in late January to begin recording the follow up to 2010’s Dirty Side Down.
That’s the plan. We’re going to go down to the Dominican Republic for a week to do some shows there and then we go right into the studio. You get a brief look at what the warm weather’s going to be like to come. By the time we get out of the studio, it’ll be close to spring.

What’s the biggest challenge for this new record?
Oh boy. I guess in a positive way the biggest challenge is just hoping that you’re going to be satisfied with the result, collectively. That’s a good challenge. Overall, you get excited to go into the studio. We’re not there all the time. We’re not in the studio as much as we’re on stage on the road. There’s a freshness to it that’s always exciting.

What is the recording process like for Widespread Panic?
It’s whatever comes out—in any form. Everything is open to collaboration, though. If you come in with an almost fully baked song, it’s still everybody’s. You give them the opportunity to get in there and offer their own inspiration. Sometimes folks would leave it alone, sometimes they have some great ideas and you open up the song. That’s the beauty of being in a band; you come up with something better than you would all on your own.

The songs sound like they change a lot while you’re in the studio.
Yeah, and then they change again when we get to know them better on the stage. Sometimes we write them on the stage first, and then they go through a morphing process there, and then we take them in the studio. However it comes about we accept that gift.

Why was now the time to record a new album?
I don’t know. It’s just kind of like when you have a craving for spaghetti. You just kind of go, “Yeah, it’s time to do that. That’s going to satisfy my hunger.” Collectively, everybody was in that mood. As far as the schedule goes, we had the time that we could carve out and do that.

Having songs evolve on stage must keep it fresh for you.
Yeah, it helps with the sanity factor. We’d go bananas if we were playing the song the same way every night. We’ve been around for a while so we have a lot of songs to choose from. Every night sets itself up a little differently. Depending on our mood, the songs may take on different personalities as well.

McDowell Mountain Music Festival, Margaret T. Hance Park, 1202 N. Third Street, Phoenix, mmmf.com, Friday, March 27, through Sunday, March 29, times vary, $50-$180

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