The number of live albums that seminal jam band Widespread Panic have done varies depending on which source is consulted, but the general consensus seems to fix it at around 40 official releases. According to bassist and founding member Dave Schools, that astonishingly high number actually sounds about right. “It’s definitely possibly true,” he says with a laugh, then adds that soon, there will be one more.
“There’s a new one coming out on Record Store Day in April, it’s called Sunday Show, recorded at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, [New York] last spring. It was a pretty special night. The band’s pretty cookin’ now, and the crowd was on our side.”
Winning over audiences has never seemed to be a problem for Widespread Panic, and they’ll prove this once again when they play five sold-out nights (February 27 through March 2) at the prestigious Beacon Theatre in New York City. “I love the Beacon,” Schools says, calling from his home in Santa Clarita, California. “I can’t wait to go back there and do this. Obviously, there’s a lot of rock and roll history [there]. We don’t tour that much anymore, so five nights there is awesome. Five nights can be a challenge, but when you parcel things out just the right way and leave plenty of room for spontaneity to happen onstage, it all works out great.
“Changing up the set list and always being free to explore within the framework of a song are the two main sonically noticeable ways that we keep ourselves from going slowly insane over the course of doing 250 shows a year,” Schools continues. “We’ve been around for over 30 years, so there’s plenty of material, plenty of crowd-pleasers, plenty of surprises, covers, and things that we do for ourselves. We’ve pretty much, barring the X-factor, learned how to definitely keep things interesting.”
Doing things in this free-form way, Schools says, “was always more of a selfish decision, I think, in hindsight. If anyone had to do any activity the same way, it would make things an assembly line, and I think you’d either get mental carpal tunnel syndrome or go slowly insane.” He says that they’ve used this improvisational style right from the start, because “it made it actually easier on ourselves because none of us really knew how to play, academically [when the band began]. We learned as a group. Learning how to play as a group creates a unique sound, no matter what level of playing you’re at. And in order to learn how to play together, you have to listen. That’s the key element of improvisation, being able to listen and respond.”
Widespread Panic formed in 1986 in Athens, Georgia, after Schools and the other founding members (singer/guitarist John Bell, guitarist Michael Houser, and drummer Todd Nance) first met in the dorms at the University of Georgia. Athens was, Schools recalls, “a great town to be a student artist—it is a magical place. It was Mayberry on acid!” he says with a laugh. “It was so cheap to live there in the mid-eighties. You could get this huge old beautiful Southern home with columns on the porch, and a whole band could live there. There could be a whole scene around that house, with several bands.”
It was a fortuitous time to live in Athens, which was then the epicenter of one of the most vibrant music scenes in the world, thanks to hometown acts like R.E.M., the B-52s, and Pylon. But at first, the members of Widespread Panic didn’t seriously believe that they’d join that list of successful Athenian artists. In fact, as Schools recalls, “I didn’t bring my bass guitar when I moved there to go to school for journalism.” He also admits that even after he got an instrument, he was unprepared for the realities of actually being a band member. “I was a super uptight kid. I have siblings, but I didn’t grow up with them, so no one ever kicked my ass. You wanna get your ass kicked, start a band!” he says with a laugh.
But Schools stuck with the group, and they soon set themselves apart from their more jangle rock peers in the scene, preferring to follow in the Grateful Dead’s jam band footsteps instead, as demonstrated on their 1988 debut album, the trippy, freewheeling Space Wrangler. They’ve remained resistant to jumping on current musical trends for all twelve studio albums that they’ve released so far, which pleases Schools: “It makes me really happy that we haven’t become this band that kowtows to the expectations of what we’re supposed to do.”
Schools adds that this refusal to conform to expectations has actually resulted in far more creative freedom in the long run. “No one has ever sat around the studio going, ‘Gosh, I don’t know if this sounds like Widespread Panic.’ We allowed ourselves to do heavy rock. We allowed ourselves to experiment in country and classic songwriting, and short songs and long songs, and complicated songs and simple songs. We just wanted to play what made us happy. And I think that’s paid off for us, as far as this wide-open creative playing field that we have.”
Besides their music, Widespread Panic also became beloved thanks to their benevolent treatment toward their fans. “We’ve always tried to keep ticket prices low and make things available. We’ve had to do end runs around weird ticketing practices, and we do the best we can to make it easy for people to come see us. Music is a helpful and medicinal thing for people. Dancing is recreational, and sometimes it’s a luxury, and maybe not every luxury should be expensive.” As a result of this philosophy, Widespread Panic quickly became one of the most popular bands on the national touring circuit.
While Widespread Panic shows have become one of the most important aspects of the band’s success (hence the 40+ live albums), that’s not to say that their studio output hasn’t also been crucial. Their twelve studio albums have all sold well; their latest one, Street Dogs, came out in 2015. “I just love the studio. It’s my favorite place on earth,” Schools says. “We’ve always had a really great time when we go to the studio.”
Still, Schools admits that recording isn’t always easy, even for a veteran act like they’ve become. “It can be very clinical. You have to work hard sometimes to make it not seem like the surgery ward of a hospital, especially with the digital recording techniques, where you can just put something together from a bunch of random noise. You are under a microscope, that’s the nature of a studio, but you don’t want to feel like people are wearing latex gloves or white jackets around you!” he says with a laugh.
Schools has learned enough about how to successfully navigate recording sessions that he now owns his own studio in California, where he often teaches new bands not to fret too much. “I think there’s a point in the process of learning how to work in the studio where you might over-perfect things, take the grit out of it. That’s something to be aware of. Every young band is like, ‘This is our chance!’ It’s natural to want to get it right, but some ‘getting it right’ sacrifices the rock and roll vibe, or the raucousness and the feel of the song.”
When it comes time for Widespread Panic to record their next album—as they plan to do in May—it won’t be in Schools’ studio, however, but back in Athens with legendary producer and recording engineer John Keane, as they’ve done starting with Space Wrangler and many albums since. “He’s been our mentor since we were pups,” Schools says of Keane, who has also worked everyone from R.E.M. to Indigo Girls and Matthew Sweet. Keane’s engineering work on Widespread Panic’s 2011 album, Dirty Side Down, proved skillful enough to receive a Grammy nomination.
“Going to John’s place in Athens is literally like returning to the nest. There’s a dynamic there and a level of respect that goes both ways, and it’s funny and fun and he can call bullshit on us and we don’t take it personally. That’s the role of a producer. The sound he gets is fantastic, so we’ve always had a really great time when we go to the studio.”
Schools says that he’s also happy to return to Athens because, although he and some of the other members have moved elsewhere, it remains the headquarters and spiritual home base for the band, which currently consists of Schools, Bell, guitarist Jimmy Herring (original guitarist Michael Houser passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2002), drummer Duane Trucks (original drummer Todd Nance left the band in 2016), keyboardist John Hermann, and percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz.
In keeping with band members’ laid-back style, Schools says there are no clear plans yet for what direction they’ll take with this next recording session—or even how they’ll go about writing songs in the first place. “Sometimes they’re more developed. Sometimes it’s a spark that collides with the spark another person had, and results in a glorious explosion of a song. But really, the thing is never saying no. Just to create a place where songs can be born and evolve, and sometimes it happens in the studio, sometimes it happens on the road. It’s really anything goes, and any idea is welcome. It might not work in the end, but we’re going to try it.”
Ultimately, Schools says it is this deliberate choice to be open and respectful toward each other that has allowed Widespread Panic to last for a few decades now. “We treat each other fairly, we treat our crew fairly, and we treat the fans fairly,” he says firmly. “We’ve grown up around each other. That means a lot. We are truly a family. It’s cool!”
Beyond becoming like a family to him, Schools says that being in Widespread Panic has also fulfilled his fondest childhood dream. “I’ve always loved music. I’ve got pictures of me on my mom’s lap, playing the piano with my baby fists.” But the real turning point came in his pre-teens, when he recalls seeing the Led Zeppelin movie The Song Remains the Same. “I was 11 or 12 [years-old], and I saw it in the theater in Richmond, Virginia where I grew up. I looked at Jimmy Page, and he was wearing those dragon pants, and I was like, ‘Holy cow, that guy gets to go to work in his pajamas! That’s the gig for me!’”
Now that becoming a professional musician has been a reality for Schools for almost 35 years, he says he couldn’t be happier with how his life has turned out. “I’m grateful. It’s not like I have a job where I have to go do the same thing every day. How cool is that?”