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Widespread Panic: Dirty Side Down
Though most of the members of Widespread Panic have moved out of Athens, Ga., the band’s eleventh studio release proves that it hasn’t necessarily forgotten its roots. Dirty Side Down finds the band reuniting with longtime friend and Athens-based producer John Keane at his home studio for the first time since 2003’s Ball —and in many ways, returning to form.
The dark, multi-layered compositions that made the band a household name are back. In fact, many of the tracks feel like they could have lived on 1999’s ’Til The Medicine Takes, especially the haunting, stripped-down opening number “Saint Ex” and the album’s title track. The result is not only a reminder of Panic’s breadth of influences, but also its range of talents: all of the band members share songwriting duties and that unity shows—the band sounds more like Widespread Panic than anything it has released since founding guitarist Michael Houser’s passing in 2002.
Panic’s hard rock sound is temporarily set aside for keyboardist JoJo Hermann’s often-overlooked flair for New Orleans jazz. He offers lead vocals—his first time singing lead on a record in seven years—on “Jaded Tourist” and a totally reworked “Visiting Day” that recalls the slinky trademark organ grooves of Booker T’s “Green Onions.” And Todd Nance steps out from the drum kit to provide rare lead vocals on his own composition “Clinic Cynic,” a recently revived pop country-sounding tune, complete with pedal steel from Keane—though it’s a weird and a bit startling to hear John Bell singing backup.
On his second album with the band, new lead guitarist Jimmy Herring shines on solos and at times channels Jerry Garcia on the Dead-sounding “St. Louis” and “Shut up and Drive.” Two of the Panic’s longtime collaborators also leave their marks on the album. Jerry Joseph’s “North” appears for the first time on a proper record and the band nods to fallen friend Vic Chesnutt with his solemn, bittersweet—and previously unreleased—“This Cruel Thing,” which also showcases local singer and Panic friend Anne Marie Boston’s backing vocals.
The final track is Panic at its best: a catchy bluesy rock tune (“Cotton Was King”), with Herring shredding, anthemic southern lyrics and a lot of musical textures that show the band’s range. As the band hearkens back to the old Panic way of doing things, perhaps Hermann says it best when he sings, “still shadows of our former self.”
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