Widespread Panic: Free Somehow

By James Calemine

The Athens, Georgia, band Widespread Panic’s last 22 years proved a formidable career. Panic travel like road warriors. They always appear on top 50 live groups earnings, and they’ve sold over 3 million albums by ignoring mainstream trends.

In 2002, Widespread’s founding guitarist Michael Houser died of cancer, and the band entered into a transitional period. In late 2006, Georgia guitarist Jimmy Herring joined the band. Free Somehow showcases Herring’s inimitable six-string talents and collaborating. His playing serves as a vital element to this music.

Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, Al Green, ZZ Top) produced Free Somehow in the Bahamas. Manning produced Panic’s 2006 Earth To America album in the Bahamas also at Compass Point Studio. Free Somehow opens with the rollicking “Boom Boom Boom” which finds Herring’s guitar at the forefront of the group’s fresh sound.

The song “Walk On The Flood” was released early with all the proceeds going to the project Make It Right, dedicated to rebuilding the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. This social song is propelled by Herring’s edgy sound with the uncharacteristic direct lyrics:

“We elected our leaders
So we’ve been told
Got no right to complain
We’ve bought what they sold
The slogan of the day
Put peace on hold
Lennon would have us laughing
If we’d just let him grow old.”

“Angels On High” gives the band a refreshing sound…a R & B flavored tune. This song allows the point to be made that Widespread’s rhythm section–bassist Dave Schools, drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo Ortiz—remains highly under-rated. The Compass Point Horns on “Angels” evoke a time traveling sound the old STAX-brass mastered.

“Three Candles” musically returns to the Panic of old…yet, somehow, Herring’s style reminds that this is the band in 2008. This CD confirms Panic still remains a force in the year we all live. On “Tickle The Truth”, another direct lyrical narrative, sounds appropriate with John Bell’s ragged-but-right-barrelhouse voice when he gives a nod to rock and roll’s greatest poet in the line: “Because I’m ripping off Dylan…”

The title track–“Free Somehow”–proves one of Widespread’s greatest songs. The laid back tune contains fiddle(s), John Hermann’s piano, and the strong rhythm section that navigates this number. “Flicker” makes one wonder if this isn’t Panic’s most rocking ditty. It will be interesting to hear these songs live.

Herring’s almost jazzy sound–floating above Schools and Nance’s Johnny Sandlin and Muscle Shoals rhythmic instinct–augmented by Manning’s orchestrated horn section confirms Widespread constructed a sun-washed wall of sound on this one… spilling into the next song, “Her Dance Needs No Body”.

“Already Fried”, conjuring a potent R & B-funk mojo, tells a lazy tale of ruin—another classic song, style, and sound from the group. The closer, complete with brass-laced, gospel backup singers “All Night Long”, pays homage to their home state of Georgia: “Can’t Sleep/I’ve been up all night/Laughing in Savannah/At the Bay Street Moon/Wet smell of sulfer/From the cobblestones/Been up all night.”

Free Somehow ranks as one of Widespread Panic’s stronger albums. It’s a golden beginning to a new era of the band.

www.jamescalemine.com