Widespread Panic singer/guitarist John Bell is expecting a busy year of touring for the band. One reason is there is a new album, “Street Dogs,” to promote, but another factor is that the group is making its 2016 tour its last and wants to play a good number of cities.

The band still plans to play some festivals and perhaps string together a few shows at select venues beyond this year. But the plan at this point is to no longer book full-on tours.

Bassist Dave Schools said there are simple reasons why Widespread Panic is ready to scale back on touring.

“We’ve been pretty much steadily touring for 30 years. That seems like a pretty long time,” he said in a recent phone interview. “We’ve been foresighted enough to take time off when we were able to and it was recuperative. But people who have kids, those kids are becoming adults. We’re becoming adults. You start a rock band and wind up becoming adults. But we all have plenty of life that we want to lead outside of the road, and that’s really the main impetus for the decision.

“It’s more like the three, four, five weeks on the road part that really gets to be a grind,” he said.

The decision to cut down on touring is no reflection on how the band members feel about each other or the quality of their shows.

“I think the band is sounding great,” Schools said. “There’s a lot of renewed energy and vigor on stage these days and some genuine excitement. We just want to preserve that in every way, and one of the best ways is not to grind it down.”

One thing that is bringing new life to the shows is the addition of some new songs, thanks for the arrival last September of Widespread Panic’s latest album, “Street Dogs.”

Bell, in a separate interview, said the band has been enjoying the process of seeing how the “Street Dogs” songs are evolving in the live setting.

“We’re having a lot of fun playing them because they’re new,” he said. “They’re still growing past the studio (versions).”

Of course, fans will hear much more than new songs at Widespread Panic’s concerts this year. This band, after all, changes up its set list from show to show and is known to play lengthy shows.

“We’ll bring back some old tunes we haven’t played in a long time, but that’s kind of par for the course,” Bell said. “We’ve got, I don’t know, maybe 300 tunes that we work with. So you’ve got to kind of put them in the blender and keep a good rotation so some float to the top and some stick to the sides.”

Widespread Panic fans have been waiting for awhile to hear new songs from the band. The group’s previous album, “Dirty Side Down,” was released in 2009, which meant six years had passed by the time “Street Dogs” arrived this past September.

Bell said it didn’t feel like it had been that long between albums to the band, which continued to maintain a busy tour schedule and took a couple of breaks to work on outside projects during that time. With touring, the side projects and making time to be home with families, setting aside time to write and record albums can get become a bit of a task.

“It was a combination of things,” Bell said, explaining the gap between the two albums. “Mostly it’s where it can fit in your schedule and if you have the collective itch to go into the studio. That usually comes about when you have a few song ideas in your head and everybody’s sharing those things and then you say ‘Ah well, it’s time to put a record together.’”

For Widespread Panic, the itch set in about two years ago when the group – Bell, Schools, guitarist Jimmy Herring, keyboardist John Hermann, percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz and drummer Duane Trucks (who has replaced long-time member Todd Nance) — convened for a pre-production session to demo out song ideas. The group, though, waited another year before heading into Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville to record “Street Dogs.”

This gave the group time to listen to the song ideas, live with them and gather ideas for how to further tweak the songs before heading into the studio for recording.

By that time, the band and producer John Keane had decided on a few ideas for how they wanted to approach recording the album.

A big decision was rather than tracking instruments individually, to try recording the songs essentially live as a band, and keep overdubs to a minimum. The goal was to try to capture some of the spontaneous magic of a Widespread Panic live show on a studio album.

This influenced the choice of Echo Mountain, a converted church in Asheville, as the studio for the project.

“Our first thing was we wanted a room where we could be in a live format and have good eye contact and stuff, but also be able to isolate (instruments),” Bell said. “We didn’t mind a little bit of bleed in from some of the instruments, but we definitely wanted the integrity of the recording process (preserved), so John, our producer, had some clean tracks to work with. So Echo Mountain was great for that.”

The recording approach allowed for some of the freewheeling improvisation that’s a big part of Widespread Panic’s live show to occur during recording. Songs like “Cease Fire” and “Sell Sell” (a cover of a tune by Alan Price of the Animals that had been in Widespread Panic’s live repertoire for awhile) have extended

instrumental segments that showcase the instrumental interplay of the group, while staying focused enough not to turn into meandering jams.

“Street Dogs” also finds Widespread Panic exploring a jazzy side of its music, especially on “Poorhouse of Positive Thinking” and “Jamais Vu (The World Has Changed).” Those songs are balanced by several potent rockers, including “Welcome to My World” (a song written by Keane), “Street Dogs For Breakfast” and “Steven’s Cat” (a playful tune that incorporates sly references to the artist who now goes by Yusef Islam).

“Theoretically we were going for something by getting away from the perfection type attitude,” Bell said. “We were trying to get back to something, capture something that had a lot of breath and life to it. We were getting there with ‘Dirty Side Down,’ too, because we made it a point to finish a song, even with overdubs and stuff, before we moved onto the next song. That way, each song, it would have a better chance of standing on its own and not sounding like the very next one.

“So the process was to go in and play these songs, be familiar with them, but not so familiar that you lose the excitement of the freshness of it,” he said.

Schools said while Widespread Panic won’t be as big a presence on the road, he expects the group to continue making albums.

“None of us want to become a nostalgia act, and everybody’s always writing music,” he said. “For us, albums are kind of like snowballs. They start with a flake of snow and then a blanket and then someone makes a little marble out of snow and then we start rolling it and it gets bigger and bigger. Sooner or later, we realize it’s time to make a record.”


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