CD Review of Free Somehow by Widespread Panic
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Widespread Records
Widespread Panic:
Free Somehow

Reviewed by Greg M. Schwartz

ike many jam rockers, Widespread Panic are better known as road warriors than makers of classic studio albums. But they’ve delivered some fine studio work over the years, with 1999’s Til the Medicine Takes being one of the best albums any improvisational rock band has ever delivered. The album had a seamless flow and a number of tunes that already were or became concert classics. Spreadheads have been understandably eager to see what the band will deliver with lead guitarist Jimmy Herring in the fold, with Free Somehow being the band’s first album since he joined the group in the fall of 2006.

It’s a given that the album is going to have a diverse spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll moods and fine playing from a group of seasoned musicians, but the question is how many of these songs will become staples in the live repertoire? “Boom Boom Boom” kicks off the album with energetic gusto, followed by the bluesy “Walk on the Flood,” where Herring’s smoking lead guitar work is featured prominently. Vocalist/rhythm guitarist John Bell sounds as gritty and soulful as ever, but also insightful as he sings “We elected our leaders / So we’ve been told / Got no right to complain / We’ve bought what they sold.”

“Angels on High” offers a mid-tempo groove that vaguely recalls the band’s 1993 classic “Picking up the Pieces,” with Dave School’s walking bass line setting the mood for Bell to sing in a more reflective manner. The Compass Point Horns are featured on this track and two others, lending a festively jazzy vibe to the proceedings. “Three Candles” has a similar bluesy ambience and compelling melodic feel, which makes it seem like the track could really open up live. Herring’s bluesy licks lead into a tasty piano solo from keyboardist John Hermann before giving way to some mystically tinged vocals from Bell, which evoke a lost sailor finding his way.

The title track disappoints, though – it begins as contemplative ballad from Bell, pondering some of the struggles of consciousness, and feels like it’s going to build into an epic, but never does. “Flicker” follows with high-octane rock energy, though; Herring delivers some scintillating rhythm work over a tight groove from Schools, drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo S. Ortiz. Herring then pours liquid lightning on his solo. The guy’s chops are arguably second to none on the modern rock scene.

If there is an epic track on the album, it’s “Her Dance Needs No Body,” where a slow-burning intro builds into dramatic results. The song doesn’t become a raging rocker, but it develops into a big jam with lush orchestral backing and a showcase for Herring where he gets a chance to deliver a solo that starts off bluesy and climbs into gravity defying realms.

One of the best tracks is saved for last with “Up All Night,” an upbeat groover that features the band’s more melodic side, rather than the bluesy overtones that dominate the album. The track has a little bit of everything – horns, female backing vocals, a stellar piano solo and lyrics that are a sure anthem in the making for the hard-partying Spreadhead Nation.

The album isn’t as consistently strong as most of the band’s studio work from the 1990s, but Free Somehow should set the stage for another year of epic live performances. As with most jam-band albums, it won’t be able to be fully judged until a few years’ time shows how many of the tunes grow into concert staples.

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