Widespread Panic puts twist of country on latest album

Diversity classifies today’s music industry. It comes through in its popular music, with different hybrids and styles being revived and explored to the fullest. So some might be taken back by the idea of a straight-up, traditional rock album, but on the latest effort by Widespread Panic, `Til the Medicine Takes (Capricorn), being traditional is a good thing.

With rustic sounds, country-influenced themes and a lonesome sound, Widespread Panic produces a down-to-earth record that will hold up for a long time because of its simplicity. Despite the psychedelic artwork on the album’s cover, if there is anything drug-related that this album represents, then it is the morning after the big party. The album boasts mellow music – music to relax to, music to drive to. It is the organic sound of small-town America, where the latest blend of big city hip-hop is irrelevant.

Widespread Panic is the same age as Phish, and Widespread Panic drew comments from the press similar to those made about Phish. Formed in 1982 in Athens, Ga., by six college students, Widespread Panic has built a strong following thanks to its rigorous touring schedule and penchant for improvisation and musical exploration. They have been compared to the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane for these reasons. But on `Til the Medicine Takes the band definitely isolates its individual groove and rides it.

The opening song Surprise Valley is a traveling jam, built up from the synthesis of Todd Nance’s drums and Domingo Ortiz’s percussion as Dave Schools produces an extremely slinky and funky bass. The track is fairly atmospheric and is carried by a post-1980s guitar line and John Bell’s worn, gritty vocals. This groove morphs into Bear’s Gone Fishin,’ which is ornamented by John Herman’s keyboard chops.

The straightforward rock of Climb to Safety follows. The song is pure regurgitated Allman Brothers’ sound with a 1990s-rock twist, making the song kind of boring. But the next song, Blue Indian, is rambling and different. The song is something you wouldn’t expect from a rock band in 1999. With sinewy pedal steel guitars, a washtub-bass thud, clickety-clackety percussion and saloon-style piano, the song is country without the cowboy hats, boots and trendy line dances.

In The Waker, Party at Your Mama’s House, You’ll Be Fine and Christmas Katie, Widespread Panic’s exploration of country sounds is magnified by lead guitar lines lifted out of Johnny Cash’s songbooks. Widespread Panic splices pop and neo-psychedelic guitar blasts into these country-like songs. Even the band’s back-up vocals give a pretty formulaic country-tinged rock some interesting twists.

Party At Your Mama’s House features synthesizers and drum loops. Dyin’ Man, with its country lyrics, has what sounds like turntable scratching and other effects. One Arm Steve fits in with the country rock theme present on the album. `Til the Medicine Takes closes with Nobody’s Loss, a soft acoustic sing-along. It reminds the listener of Chevy Chase, Martin Short and Steve Martin sitting around the fire in Three Amigos – a fitting end to a very transient, rustic album.

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