Widespread Panic: Dirty Side Down

Widespread Panic
Dirty Side Down
Rating: ★★★☆☆

If there is a science to being a jam band, a code to break, or equation to solve where the solution yields the sort of accessible riffs and hooks anyone would expect at a summer concert, Widespread Panic cracked it.

After nearly 25 years together, Dirty Side Down is the band’s eleventh album, and features a solid mix of blues, jazz, rock and southern grit. Opener “Saint Ex” is a nod to the life and unfortunate yet ironic death of “The Little Prince” writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. During World War II, Saint-Exupéry served as a pilot until he was shot down during a reconnaissance mission. Years later, the pilot responsible found out that he had effectively killed one of his favorite authors.

“Saint Ex” shifts between distant, dreamy verses, to more intense, nearly thrashing vocals on the chorus: “save me, slowly tame me, don’t apologize with philosophy.” Despite the fact that it’s the first track, it’s not necessarily representative of the album, as most of the remaining songs lean toward gritty, bluesy southern rock.

“North” is a better indicator, all wild guitar and reckless vocals. That’s where Widespread Panic sounds best, energetic and guitar-driven, playing like they don’t have anywhere to be in the morning.

The somber “This Cruel Thing” is a cover, originally written by long-time Widespread Panic collaborator Vic Chesnutt. Chesnutt died in December, and the melancholy that pervades the track no doubt draws on his passing. Slow-paced “Shut Up and Drive” evokes a moody scene on a desert highway– “hitch hiker praying to the headlights, don’t slow down, not this night. Cactus shadows in the blue moon light, let’s not get fooled, rear view hindsight–” but eventually the lyrics are eaten up in an ADD-inducing riff.

Science or not, Widespread Panic’s eleventh offering shows that after all this time, they’ve got something figured out.