Amidst changes, no reason for Widespread to panic
With the thunderous opening timpani roll of sun-soaked strut “Boom Boom Boom,” Widespread Panic begins its new album on a familiar—albeit, sonically fresh—foot. Once again calling on former Led Zeppelin/Al Green producer Terry Manning (and once again leaving behind the comfort of hometown Athens, Ga., and longtime producer John Keane for the total immersion of the Bahamas at Nassau’s Compass Point Studios), Panic has made the big-budget, big-production record most bands dream of someday making.
With the added force of new textures—strings, bells, horn sections, gospel choirs—Free Somehow frees the band from the constraints of its musical legacy, while also revisiting what made Panic great to begin with: chiefly, its gritty blend of hope and sorrow; of all-night revelry and the somber reality of a Sunday-morning hangover.
While its upbeat rockers add a welcome sense of urgency, Free Somehow is most interesting when it is slow, pensive and bleak. While many of the jambands Widespread Panic is often lumped with copout by peddling mindless aural Prozac (so they and their listeners can lose themselves in feel-good escapist bliss), Panic’s often brooding, mournful music is far more in line with the times in which we live—refusing to ignore pain, struggle and suffering, but also offering hints of hope and wonder. (Just listen to the album’s most epic track, the slow-building multi-section orchestral-rock suite “Her Dance Needs No Body,” one of the most ambitious tunes the band has ever attempted; essentially it's a musical answer to the Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station” or Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”)
The other marked change on this album is the presence of virtuoso guitarist Jimmy Herring (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Allman Brothers Band, The Dead). Herring replaced the blues-and-R&B-fueled riffing of George McConnell in 2006, and is finally getting—as Panic bassist Dave Schools puts it—“his first chance to write with the band and have his ideas as part of the whole recipe.”
Herring does right by Panic on Free Somehow, never being overly showy and always serving the songs—anyone who ever heard him cut heads in ARU back in the ’90s knows that Herring could, at the drop of a hat, hatch a guitar spectacle of Rhandy Rhodes/Eddie Van Halen proportions.
With Herring in the lead-guitar slot, and with Panic having honed its supporting/rhythm-section chops over its past 20-plus years on the road, the band’s instrumental forays and improvisations have reached a new—more jazz-indebted—level of sophistication. Gone are the occasionally aimless hit-or-miss jams that came with valiantly original (albeit less-technically-skilled) founding guitarist Mike Houser and the more conventional playing of McConnell. But the best thing about Herring is that his technical prowess comes with plenty of feeling and good taste—a rarity for those endowed with such impressive abilities. And this feeling and good taste—in conjunction with some of frontman John Bell’s most dynamic songwriting in a decade—has continued revitalizing Widespread Panic, a band that is once again starting to live up to its legend.