More than your average bass player

Bassist Dave Schools explains why Widespread Panic is his dream gig

L. Kent Wolgamott | Boulder Weekly

For Widespread Panic, it’s all about the flow.

That’s the term bassist Dave Schools uses to describe the onstage communication and instrumental interplay transmitted among the members of the band that, when it’s right, makes for one of their legendary improvisation-spiced performances.

“If we have all six people show up and that phenomenon is alive for everyone, it’s going to be one of the best shows of the year,” Schools says. “But it’s hard for all six to show up like that. But there are days when people allow the collective thing to happen, it really happens.

“It’s all the flow,” he says. “When it has been really successful, you have to be reminded of what you did after the show’s over. When it happens, it happens and it’s great. When it doesn’t happen, sometimes you sit back and watch someone [else] have the game of their life.”

That someone could be Schools, singer/guitarist John Bell, drummer Todd Nance, percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, keyboardist John “JoJo” Hermann or guitarist Jimmy Herring. Regardless of who it is, Schools says, someone is almost always having a good night when the band hits the stage.

That’s stayed true, even after Widespread Panic took 2012 off. Schools called in the morning after one of the band’s first 2013 shows and said those who turned up for the show were more than ready for some Panic.

“The audience was really glad to have us back,” Schools says. “They would work us to death if they could. If it was down to some sort of concert party marathon, we’re pretty good at it, too. It would be interesting to see who would survive, us or them.”

That loyal audience has had much to do with the success of Widespread Panic, which came together in Athens, Ga. in the ’80s.

In 1981, Bell and guitarist Michael Houser, who died in 2002, met at the University of Georgia and started working together, playing shows and writing songs. In 1985, Schools joined the duo. The next year, Nance was added to the lineup and Widespread Panic, named for Houser’s panic attacks, was born.

While the group built its career with, and is still best known for, its live performances, Widespread Panic has recorded 11 studio albums in close to two decades, the most recent of which was 2010’s Dirty Side Down.

“We’ve kind of separated ourselves from the jam band pack in that way,” Schools says. “It’s an overall belief that the live shows are better and the recording process is a different thing. We look at it as totally different. Some of us like being in the studio more than others. It can be a difficult process.”

Live, Schools says, Widespread Panic doesn’t just get up on the stage and start playing whatever pops into someone’s mind.

“We have a road map,” he says. “It would be foolish to undertake any kind of journey with some kind of map. Years ago, we didn’t use one. But the audience didn’t seem to mind us huddling together between every song to figure out where we were going to go.”

Throughout the conversation, Schools repeatedly referred to the freedom within the band, a liberation that extends even to the rhythm section that has to hold the music together.

“I see myself as a pretty lucky bass player,” Schools says. “Most bass players stand there and see themselves as the foundation of the sound, along with the drums, and maybe sing a little background. There’s a lot of freedom in this band. When I joined the band, there was no drummer. So there was a metronomic aspect to what I played. Then once in a while, John or Michael would say, ‘Take a solo.’ I was like, ‘Bass solo? What?’

“That’s why Widespread Panic is such a dream gig,” he says. “I feel so lucky. I have such freedom. Take a poll of bass players and see how many answer that way.”

That’s why Schools was excited to be back on the road — ready for a summer of shows with the band that he says continually gets better, more interesting and more fun to play with.

“The notable change, the sweeping change, is we’ve gotten better at being ourselves, at being Widespread Panic,” Schools says. “That comes from having done over 2,500 gigs. Anything you do over and over when you have freedom, you have to learn to be yourself. When you do that, it just gets better and better.”

Widespread Panic plays Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Thursday, June 27, through Sunday, June 30. Show times vary. Tickets are $50. 18300 W. Alameda Parkway, Morrison, 720-865-2494.