Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
You wouldn’t think a band known for its free flowing jam sound would take nearly 30 years and 11 previous releases to finally record themselves live in the studio. But that’s the word on Athens, Georgia’s Widespread Panic who congregated along with co-producer and longtime associate John Keane in Asheville, North Carolina’s Echo Mountain Studios for an hour long disc that arguably captures their combination of blues, rock and folk better than other studio attempts.
There is a loose yet cohesive quality to these seven originals and three covers that feels genuine and natural. The six piece (Keane helps on guitar, making it seven) shifts gears between the good time mid-tempo boogie shuffle of “Street Dogs for Breakfast” to the stuttering, lurching style of their version of Alan Price’s obscurity “Sell Sell,” a powerful opening that displays Jimmy Herring’s guitar prowess surging behind singer John Bell’s gritty vocals. The vibe simmers down for the jazzy, floating “Jamais Vu (The World Has Changed),” an example of the swampy atmosphere that runs through many of their songs dating back to a cover of J.J. Cale’s “Travelin’ Light” on their 1988 debut. In contrast the slow grind of “Honky Red” reveals a heavier side. A cover of Willie Dixon by way of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Taildragger” finds Widespread digging deep into the blues, but the rearrangement transforms it into tough Southern rock, similar to how the Allman Brothers Band appropriated Chicago and Texas blues, converting the music into their own image. Keane sings on his own “Welcome to My World,” an upbeat throwaway blues rocker enlivened by a rollicking performance typical of this album’s groove. The vibrant, percolating “Cease Fire” seems to be inspired by ’70s Santana and gives Panic a chance to improvise as the tune morphs from driving to drifting.
The newly composed tunes are tellingly credited to all band members, an indication of the communal synergy and collective energy (pictures of the session are included in the booklet) that makes this one of Widespread Panic’s finest discs. Its success is a sign they should record future albums in a similar live-in-the-studio method, a perfect compromise between their proclivity for jamming/noodling and the song structure required for repeated listenings.
This article has been amended from its original version.