John Bell can’t even guess how many times Widespread Panic has played in Charleston over the years. Instead, the lead singer skims over the early chapters of the band’s 30-year history and name-drops the old Myskyn’s Tavern, which, for Charleston fans, illustrates the band’s veteran status better than any tally of concerts could.
The small club down on Faber Street closed in 1994, just a few years after Phish opened a show there for Widespread Panic. The band also played the old Music Farm before it was renovated, and headlined the first concert at Riley Park on the Ashley River after it was finished in 1997.
No doubt, Widespread Panic’s roots in the South run deep, and Charleston was one of those cradles of support in the region that helped the band go from a college town act in Athens, Georgia, in the mid-’80s to a nationwide sensation that defined the modern “jam band” label.
While success took them all over the world, Southern fans could pretty much count on Widespread Panic to play nearby at least once every few years. Tradition seems to prevail this weekend when the band returns to the North Charleston Coliseum on its latest spring run in support of the new critically acclaimed album “Street Dogs.”
But the show also might signal the end of an era. Bell said last week that the band members have all decided to pump the brakes on their near-constant tour schedule and book fewer dates after this year.
“The plan now is just to dial it down a little bit in the future. Not do as many shows, but still be out there from year to year,” Bell said, explaining they want to have “a little breathing room to enjoy our families and pursue any other non-Panic things that any of us feel drawn to.”
He emphasized that it’s not a hiatus, which they’ve taken before. They still plan to play the big blowouts at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver, or Jazz Fest in New Orleans, for instance. But they’re retiring from the months-long tours across the country that have brought them to smaller markets like Charleston so many times over the years.
As a group that’s been on the road pretty consistently since the mid-’80s, the decision to exit the touring life is understandable. But it still marks a dramatic pivot for the jam band’s career.
Like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band, Widespread Panic’s firm bond with its fan base is rooted in the live concert experience. It spawned a whole culture that not only propelled Widespread Panic’s success, but often insulated the group from major shifts in the music business.
The most avid followers will tour with the band for months at a time, earning gas money by hawking T-shirts and grilled cheese sandwiches in venue parking lots before shows. Some run blogs about every night’s performance, parsing each song choice, guitar solo and cover tune.
Bell said the fans play a major role in the band’s whole enterprise, particularly the live concerts.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s just about Widespread Panic,” he said. “I think they come to be part of this experience, and that’s largely due to the energy of the fans themselves.”
Another fan tradition inherited by the Grateful Dead is that the band allows audience members to record the live shows, which helped them grow in unexpected ways.
“We wouldn’t have people coming out to the shows as rapidly as they did when we started catching on if there wasn’t this network of people sharing the music,” Bell said.
While he said record companies were critical of the practice at first, it ultimately led to real revenue for touring bands.
When online file-sharing became the most common way to trade the amateur recordings, many jam bands started recording and selling their own higher-quality mixes online. Today, Widespread Panic sells downloads of its shows the morning after each performance, creating another concert-related revenue stream.
Bell said he’s still unsure which type of records fans prefer, the live shows or the studio albums.
“I like both,” he said with a laugh. “I just think they’re two different ways that we get to play our music.”
Retirement from the road isn’t the only big change that Widespread Panic has announced this year. Recently, the group acknowledged that founding member and drummer Todd Nance had left the group permanently and been replaced by Duane Trucks, who had been filling in for Nance since he took a hiatus in September 2014.
The announcement came shortly after Nance returned to play with Widespread Panic for the Panic En La Playa Festival in Mexico in February.
Bell said the band didn’t plan to explain to fans what led to the longtime drummer’s departure because “it’s private business.”
He said the group is benefiting from the new energy brought by Trucks, who will continue to perform with them in the future.
“We’re having a great time with Duane,” Bell said. “He’s young, but he’s extremely professional and knowledgeable.”
Trucks has several connections to Widespread Panic: he plays in Hard Working Americans with bassist Dave Schools, and his father-in-law is guitarist Jimmy Herring. Plus, Southern rock runs in his family. His brother is guitarist Derek Trucks, and his uncle is Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks.
Bell said Trucks was easily integrated in the band’s collaborative process when they worked on “Street Dogs,” the new full-length album released in September.
“That’s always the way we’ve worked,” he added. “I think the rule of thumb is to accept any inspiration from any direction it comes from and be willing to collaborate, and we’re pretty well practiced at that.”
The band’s strategy in the studio differed from some past efforts, as the group tried to keep it stripped-down and unpolished, to sound like they do when they’re all on stage together.
“We’ve done records with lavish instrumentation, augmentation, background vocals and all that stuff ... and that’s a lot of fun,” he said. “But as far as I’m concerned, when you go live, you don’t necessarily need all those elements if you play with all your heart.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.