In 2011, Georgia’s Widespread Panic will commemorate 25 years together. Change is inherent to any band that has been together for as long as they have. More often than not, loss is the source that inspires or drives the perceived change. When founding member and guitarist Michael Houser passed away due to pancreatic cancer in 2002, change was inevitable. Fortunately, for ‘Spread-heads, the band continued writing and recording and performing together, as was Houser’s wish.
The touring stalwart and jamband linchpin endured several key changes in the years since his passing. George McConnell stepped in as Houser’s “replacement” on guitar, and long time producer John Keane also filled in as a touring guitarist. After several tours and one recording with McConnell, the band replaced him with Jimmy Herring, a move that pleased fans as being more in tune with the band. Further, having worked with Keane in his Athens recording studio as a producer for nearly its entire career, the band recorded its next two CDs in Nassau with producer Terry Manning. The 2006 release, Earth To America, and 2008’s Free Somehow both deviated from the band’s bluesy, barroom southern rock, towards a much more polished approach, with hard-driving anthems clearly directed towards a more radio-friendly sound.
Funny how you always come back to the one you love, isn’t it? Dirty Side Down was recorded once again with Keane behind the boards in his home studio in Athens, and it’s quite a return to form and to the band’s roots. It’s the strongest songwriting of the band’s career, an album of multi-layered textures that will provide for extensive improvisation in performance.
Opener “Saint Ex” is a haunting tale of The Little Prince writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a World War II pilot shot down while on a reconnaissance mission. “Sometimes they see you / just now they don’t / maybe this is a lucky day / a penny on the way home / slip between the clouds for cover / raindrops hide in the sea / olly olly oxen free,” vocalist John Bell hauntingly sings, amidst chilling acoustic and electric guitars and spine tingling percussion, before a harrowing, pounding chorus reflects the fear of being chased in the dog fight. Ethereal verses clash with thrashing choruses throughout the song, before Bell concludes, “Come closer, tame me / don’t you recognize, we are not enemies?”
Widespread Panic has infused this recording with some of its finest party tunes as well. The title track is an upbeat and windswept rocker with jangly guitar swirls, ripe for rolling down the Pacific Coast Highway with the top down. Keyboardist Jo Jo Hermann has found his voice again and seems to have grown particularly comfortable in his own skin as a vocalist, and in embracing his love of New Orleans boogie. The live gem and fan favorite “Visiting Day” has been totally reworked for its studio debut. “Jaded Tourist” takes a page out of the Dr. John book of playful piano blues. Drummer Todd Nance takes on lead vocals on the sunshine- and country-kissed “Clinic Cynic”, with Keane adding blissful steel guitar.
Then there is the elegant, somber and mellow reading of the late Vic Chesnutt’s unreleased gem “This Cruel Thing”. This tune is the time to place your headphones on and get lost in Herring’s mournful guitar wails and Bell’s graceful yet solemn vocals. “If amid din of battle / nobly you should fall / I’ll whisper words in your honor / when this cruel thing is over,” Bell sings, while a cadent drum marches behind him and guest vocalist Anne Marie Boston adds a somber, harmony eulogy. Bell’s vocals also reflect a lonely ache on the exquisite lover’s-on-the-road lament “When You Coming Home”, backed by Keane’s weepy steel guitar.
On its eleventh studio recording, Widespread Panic sounds more like itself than it has in years. Dirty Side Down is the sound of a band returning to the comforts of home.
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// Notes from the Road
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