[3 April 2008]
That Widespread Panic’s most significant musical output has not been in the form of studio albums is not surprising. That Panic in the Streets, a live recording of the band’s 1998 outdoor CD release party in hometown Athens, Georgia, is one of their most popular and well received albums is predictable. The consistent ranking in the annual top 50 grossing touring acts in the last eight years speaks volumes for the relentless touring they have endured since the group’s inception in 1986. In December 2006, Widespread Panic was even recognized for its 15th consecutive sold-out New Year’s Eve concert at Atlanta’s Phillips Arena, a profound number, with a championship-like banner hanging from the 21,000 capacity venue’s rafters. As one of the most vaunted of veteran jam bands, Widespread Panic’s command of the live concert is ontological, and forges dramatic new sounds and variations to an ever-growing repertory. The material recorded in studios is but a snapshot of Panic’s constant musical development. Despite the band’s inclination towards live performances, its newest album, Free Somehow, adds distinctly new material to an already extensive arsenal from which to interpret, improvise, and play with before the faithful followers.
Like train robbers of the Union Pacific, Widespread Panic launches into Free Somehow with the reckless abandon of Southern outlaws: nothing to lose, and the setting sun their only destination. The opening track, “Boom Boom Boom”, is demonic and rebellious, with assertive guitars. It finds the band at once sounding powerfully familiar, yet charged with youthful vigor and impulse.
“Walk on the Flood” is a cautionary, somewhat cryptic, tale of greed, lust, and the casualties of vanity and vice. When John Bell sings of unity but accountability for committed wrongs, the guitars ache accordingly and then seem to vent their ulterior vexation. Mostly political, the track could easily be overlooked as another jaded cynical cry, however they show no restraint in singing about social responsibility and activism with a rejuvenated emphasis. By the end of the first two tracks, the album’s title and aim are apparent: the Panic is playing louder than Krakatoa and with less restraint; perhaps an attempt to prevent themselves from slipping into creative complacency.
The album’s best track, “Angels on High”, is arguably the most classic Panic as well. Though hazy synthesizer layers, light funk background guitar (a la Kool & the Gang), and an overall ethereal feel don’t all scream Widespread Panic, the ease with which the song slips into a percussion-fueled rock cannot be mistaken. Bell’s delicate vocals contradict the conviction with which the guitar hook, brass, and bass lines are all played. Jimmy Herring, the latest incarnation of Widespread Panic’s lead guitarist, and his solos, here high and soaring, convey a lucid dramatic arc, but always recede into the warm glow of the track.
“Angels on High” is one of the few decisively major sounding songs, as the rest of the album has an uneasy, and equally decisive, minor resonance sustaining it. Like the lengthy Presidential campaigns absorbing the country’s woes, perhaps Widespread Panic’s time on the road, also saturated with a sullen outlook, is the underlying source for this dour, yet passionate collection of new songs. At point one the band tries to inject some humor into this increasingly jaundiced view when singing, “Tickle the truth into submission”. Not that Widespread Panic has ever been inclined to censor its music, but one can’t help feel the urgency in this newfound condemnation of an ignominious culture.
Throughout the album, Bell and Herring’s guitars rev with increasing throttle like Harleys at Sturgis, particularly on “Flicker”. The track sounds more Black Sabbath than Allman Brothers, but given the darker mood, the song is, surprisingly, a lamentation on fading love, not the state of our union or other persistent themes.
The most complex track on the album is also its shortest lyrically. “Her Dance Needs No Body” is at once funereal, hypnotic, necromantic, and warm, and is most impressive as a composition and arrangement. Unlike other tracks, it offers the most intriguing glimpse of Widespread Panic in its natural environment: on stage. The track blurs the line between composition and improvisation and trying to figure which force is dominating is like a glass half-full/half-empty argument. Just enjoy the damn drink!
Stylistically and harmonically, Free Somehow is a departure from Widespread Panic’s recognizable sanguine Southern rock. (And any studio album is a departure from the group’s most comfortable position atop the bandstand). But producer Terry Manning, of Stax Records distinction, doesn’t pull a rhythm and blues makeover, and instead propels the group in a unique, though darker sounding, direction that will indelibly enhance the Panic’s live performances for sold-out shows to come.