Photo by Dean Budnick

With some downtime on his schedule as Widespread Panic scales down their touring plans for 2017, bassist Dave Schools is filling the time fulfilling some passion projects (including a new record from Steve Kimock) and collaborating with members of the Grateful Dead at this weekend’s Los Muertos Con Queso. Checking in with Schools before he travels to Mexico (and before the passing of Butch Trucks) he digs into Panic’s impressive stretch to close 2016, diving into the Dead songbook and why protest music is as important as its ever been, and who will be writing it.

I think the best place to start is reflecting on 2016, particularly with Widespread Panic. It feels like you guys really dug deep in the catalog especially towards the end of the year. How would you assess the close of the year for Panic?

A big part of it comes down to two things. One is, obviously, Duane Trucks. He’s fresh, and he has a fresh set of ears. He got past the 150 songs or so that are pretty much staples of the routine. But he kept digging because he’s curious, and he developed a sense of wanting to understand the long-term vibe of the band. He dug deep.

But the other part is, just knowing that we’re taking a year off, a lot of us wanted to recapture certain things and present them in a new light. When you ask what I thought about the fall tour, I’m kind of proud. A lot of bands that are 30 years old, cruising in to doing a really light upcoming year, might have just said, “Well, let’s just get through this shit.”

We probably put about 18 hours of rehearsal into all three of those New Year’s shows. I was proud of us; it’s a lot of work, but it pays off because the audiences get something they don’t expect. I mean, a Sabbath song every night at the second leg of the fall tour?

Also, we really got to flesh out Cocker’s “With a Little Help From my Friends” and “Burning Down the House,” and putting the strings on some of those songs really put their point across in a beautiful way.

I was going to ask who the big Sabbath fan in the band was.

In the old days, it was me and Mikey. We loved Sabbath. But Jimmy loves Sabbath as much as he loves John McLaughlin. And Duane loves Sabbath as much as he loves Sun Ra. So it just seemed like a no-brainer. It’s fun to play slab rock.

The opening night of New Year’s was presented chronologically, starting with your first records and progressing forward. How did that come about and was it intentional?

It didn’t have any real meaning other than John Bell came up with the idea and we all sort of picked the songs. There’s so many different ways to look at constructing a show. The sky’s the limit depending on your core material. We kind of did a history lesson at a New Year’s show at the Fox Theater a long time ago, but it started with JB by himself and then added a band member in the order that the band was formed. So this was different. It’s all in the name of “Is anybody going to notice but us? I’ll bet they will.”

Back to Duane for a second, you had high praise for him and obviously work with him in Hard Working Americans as well. As the bassist, what do you notice about his biggest strengths and what he brings to the music?

First and foremost, it’s completely intuitive; it’s groove-oriented, a lot of the same influences. We listen to a lot of the same things. He got lucky having Derek Trucks as an older brother, who really rode him hard. The drummer’s role is the sort of time-keeping heart of the band. Duane really concentrates on tempo, which is something that I’m really aware of. There was a natural locking up right then and there.

Because of that having already been fleshed out, road-tested and proven with Hard Working Americans, when things got dicey and we needed someone to come in really fast and learn about 120 songs in two weeks, it seemed like that was a great place to start. It’s not like we’re going to call up Kenny Aronoff or something like that. It was a family thing.

I do have a lot of high praise for him because he is a guy that does not shrink from a challenge. There’s some songs that are more challenging for the drummer than others in our catalog; he’s the guy going “Let’s knock these out!” not “Let’s continue to rehearse it” but “Let’s play it the very first show!” To me, that’s not necessarily my way of doing things, but I’m learning, and it makes me happy that I can learn from someone who’s half my age.

Speaking of learning songs quickly, in Mexico you’ll be playing with a unique group including Weir, Kreutzmann, Tom Hamilton and Jeff Chimenti. What was your initial reaction to this?

I thought it would be great! It’s a great learning opportunity for me because I’ve never played a lot of this material. I’ve done things with Bobby, and I’ve certainly played with Billy over the years, and obviously played with Mickey. The Mickey Band didn’t do much outside of the realm of the really standard, stock Grateful Dead book.

But this is a great opportunity for me to really get inside of the mind of Bob Weir. It’s a matter of learning some of the details. I can listen to music and be familiar with it as a listener, but to really dive into those details is different, and Bobby is a very detail-oriented cat. These songs are beautiful, they’re extraordinarily well-constructed, and they sound simpler than they are to play.

And that’s the whole trick with the Dead book. It is to get comfortable, and in order to get comfortable, you have to really get the details. It’s extra tough as a bass player because I don’t want to copy Phil Lesh. He didn’t even copy himself from night to night. He simply existed in the moment, in the music. That was always his goal, and that’s all those guys’ goal.

To present something different every night is a challenge and, like I said earlier, it’s not necessarily my nature to lean into challenges. But this is music that I’ve felt a kinship towards for a long time, and I’ve only dabbled in, to a certain degree, with some of the original guys. This is a great opportunity to surprise some people with the material we’ve chosen and also to put a new spin on it. That’s why this music is still loved and important. It’s not the people that deliver it, it’s the songs themselves and the methodology that people appreciate. I think that’s an important lesson for everyone.

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