“Just getting back together, working out songs and coming up with new ideas, that's really what I've really missed,” Bell, 59, explains in the signature raspy drawl that has anchored band hits including “Ain’t Life Grand” and “Up All Night.” “It kind of reminds me of back in the day, when we would hang out in the kitchen of the old band house, discovering music and putting songs together.”
From the band’s native Athens, Georgia, Bell explains that the vibes are as magical as ever. After more than three decades together, Widespread Panic hasn’t missed a beat as the longtime friends and cohorts have coalesced over rehearsals. The outfit knows how to put on a show, even for itself — and come Friday, the group will break its own record, becoming the first band to perform more than sixty shows at the world-famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
It’s been 40 years since Bell met former lead guitarist Michael Houser in their University of Georgia dorm, and 35 years since Houser invited his childhood friend and former drummer Todd Nance to play their first official show as Widespread Panic. Percussionist Domingo Ortiz began sitting in that same year, and the instrumentally driven outfit began to develop its galvanic blend of blues, funk and progressive rock.
The last three decades have seen Widespread Panic transform across various iterations; both Houser and Nance passed away, and Bell and Ortiz are currently joined by co-founder and bassist/vocalist Dave Schools, keyboardist/vocalist John Hermann, lead guitarist Jimmy Herring and drummer Duane Trucks.
“When a new cat comes into the band, the band becomes a variant of the original, and we get this shot to refocus and get inspired in a whole new way,” Bell says. “The creativity and firepower that these guys bring in gives us new energy.”
Blues Traveler on a brisk summer night, and Bell recalls worrying more about the speakers rattling in the wind than being consumed by pre-show jitters.
“We were a little distracted by the weather, and maybe that made us less nervous about the fact that we were playing our dream venue when we were just starting out,” he says.
Following the opening set, Bell sat in the crowd to bask in Blues Travelers’ headlining performance. It was the first and last time he attended a Red Rocks show as an audience member, and as he watched the fireworks explode behind the stage, he knew it would be a watershed moment in the band’s Colorado experience.
“I'm watching them on stage where there's this great light show, and then behind it you can see the city, and you can see fireworks going off and lightning going on,” Bell laughs. “It was one of those times where you just took a picture in your mind and kept that around.”
Despite being firmly rooted in Southern sonics and an induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2008, Widespread Panic views Colorado as a home away from home, says Bell.
“Our music gels with the type of folks in the Colorado area that are drawn to mountain life and the Rockies. It’s a perfect combination for us,” he explains. “I couldn’t imagine a better place for our first shows back.”
Before descending on Red Rocks this weekend, Widespread Panic will play its first official post-COVID show at Denver’s Mission Ballroom on Thursday, June 24. The intimate affair will mark the group's eleventh Tunes for Tots: A Benefit for the Arts, a charity performance series that has raised more than $1.5 million for music education programs. Since 2005, fans have been invited to experience stripped-down sets for top-dollar donations at venues across the country. The Mission Ballroom proceeds will benefit Pine Ridge Reservation, which is home to approximately 30,000 people of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota.
Similar to his charitable efforts through Tunes for Tots, Bell started his own fundraising initiative called Hannah’s Buddies in 2000 to support spinal muscular atrophy research. The charity golf tournament is named after his goddaughter Hannah, who had been diagnosed with SMA and has raised more than $2 million for research into the disease.
In February 2020, before COVID halted mass gatherings, Bell hosted one final Hannah’s Buddies golf tournament and silent auction in Orlando. He beams with pride when recounting his fans’ decades of support, starting on Hannah’s second birthday and running through her graduation from NYU’s Music School.
“It’s nice to have so many folks that want to support an idea you have, even outside of music,” Bell says.
Bell feels a mixture of excitement and nerves about returning to the venue that’s played host to so many iconic Widespread Panic moments.
“We’re a little bit nervous, but Red Rocks is such familiar territory,” he says. “No matter how many times we play there, it’s always been a gig-by-gig thing. My biggest hope is that everybody comes in happy and healthy and leaves that way."
Widespread Panic plays the Mission Ballroom on June 24 and Red Rocks June 25 to 27.