New album makes Spreadheads happy
By Catherine Foss
More than two decades after formation, Widespread Panic hasn’t lost any of the early enthusiasm that put the band on the musical map. Despite lacking an MTV presence or a YouTube cult following, Widespread Panic is more than just a bunch of middle-aged men jamming out — as anybody who has attended one of the band’s live shows will tell you. They’ve headlined major U.S. music festivals such as Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza and sold more than 3 million albums. Dedicated fans even refer to themselves as “Spreadheads.”
The camaraderie of this close-knit group sets them apart from attention-hungry rock bands that care more about image than music. The band members — John Bell (vocals/guitar), John Herman (keyboards/vocals), Jimmy Herring (lead guitar), Todd Nance (drums/vocals), Domingo Ortiz (percussion) and Dave Schools (bass/vocals) — operate more like a family, playing to contribute to the songs as a whole rather than playing over each other or showing off.
Their 11th studio album, Dirty Side Down, illustrates mastery over the blended style the band has created, a mature concoction of blues, rock and jazz. The sound is contagious, suggesting the energy of Dave Matthews combined with the haunting darkness of Metallica. The album takes listeners through those moments, small and large, that are absolutely human and full of honesty. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how well you understand the music’s technical aspects; this album is a universal exploration of emotions.
As the first notes of “Saint Ex” reverberate, we enter a dark world full of complex melodies. The catchy “Shut Up and Drive” takes you on a top-down convertible ride through windy mountain roads, while songs like “Clinic Cynic” remind us of the band’s southern roots; the track is bouncy and soulful, with a bluesy trail of notes dancing on top of each other.
Like little vignettes, each track is its own story, both musically and lyrically. Ten of the tracks are completely original, but interestingly enough, it’s a cover that may well be the most moving song on the album. “This Cruel Thing,” a cover of a song by the late Vic Chesnutt, marches steadily along in the face of great turmoil: “I’ll whisper words in your honor when this cruel thing is over.”
The only disappointment you might have after listening to Dirty Side Down is the absence of the live band jamming in your living room. As great as a CD can be, some bands are just meant to be heard live.
Widespread Panic, 7 pm Tuesday, June 29. Cuthbert Amphitheatre. $40 adv., $45 door.