Widespread Panic makes its best music in the live setting, no small feat when you consider the impressive run of studio recordings the sextet has under its formidable belt. So, that the group opted to record this new album live in the studio makes nothing less than perfect sense. All the hallmarks of the band’s live sets are there: the jazz and Latin-inflected vibes, the extended instrumental passages during which everyone lays back and lets things happen, the sense that anything can happen, and as the old adage goes, there’s danger lurking in every note.
And the band has never sounded better nor more relaxed.
Vocalist John Bell has never sounded better on a studio recording than he does here, shining especially bright on “Angels Don’t Sing the Blues”, a number that also features some especially lyrical guitar work the always fresh-sounding Jimmy Herring. There, as on “The Poorhouse of Positive Thinking”, he asks us to imagine what might have happened had Jerry Garcia more fully embraced his jazziest tendencies more often but also demands our attention as one of the great players in the contemporary scene. And, on “Welcome To My World”, he proves that he can boogie better and rock harder than most, as can the band. In fact, the whole band tilts our world on that track, providing us with a welcome reprieve from the morose musical meanderings that too often populate the world these days.
There are times, such as on “Steven’s Cat” and “Jamai Vu (The World Has Changed)”, when Widespread calls to mind Traffic at the peak of its powers and yet this collective is never less than its own band, capable of remarkable and transcendent moments that, in this case, span the whole stretch of an album. That’s especially true on the searing Willie Dixon-penned “Taildragger”, during which one is advised to seek shelter in a fire-proof world as the band scorches everything in its wake in the space of just under five minutes.
This is a band that has long excelled at interpreting the works of others and “Taildragger” is certainly no exception but neither are Alan Price’s “Sell Sell” or Murray McLauchlan’s “Honky Red”. Across those tracks and so many others you get the real sense that this is a group of guys who know no fear and yet strike fear into the heart of lesser musicians, incapable of travelling between the relaxed vibe of “Street Dogs For Breakfast” to the uncompromising epicness of “Cease Fire” (probably the most expansive and imaginative of the cuts here,though that’s a very tough call).
And if Herring and Bell’s performances are worth noting then so too are those of keyboardist John Hermann, percussionist Domingo Ortiz, bassist David Schools and drummer Duane Trucks who joins in for these sessions. This is a fine lineup for a band that has delivered yet another fine album and one that we can only hope we don’t have to wait another five years to see the likes of. In the meantime, however, we’ll take all those live recordings we can because surely a group playing as great as this one is right now will leave us with plenty to remember.