Review: Widespread Panic’s new acoustic CD a successful experiment
October 11, 2012
In 1996, Widespread Panic, wanting a ski vacation that paid for itself, booked a couple of weeks of shows through the Rocky Mountains. Sticking to ski towns and the small venues in those towns, including Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, Panic opted to take a stylistic turn and play the concerts mostly acoustic. Musically, the Sit ‘n’ Ski Tour was a lackluster adventure; the band has confessed they didn’t really know how to go the unplugged route at the time.
“Wood” should erase any bad memories. Recorded this past winter on a four-city run that included Aspen’s Belly Up – the band’s first unplugged tour since the Sit ‘n’ Ski what-have-you – the two-CD set documents a successful transition into the acoustic realm.
“Wood” captures Panic accomplishing most everything you could hope for from an experiment like this: The band puts a new twist on familiar tunes; it adds a few new tunes to the band’s repertoire, including a refreshing take on the Beatles’ “Ballad of John and Yoko”; it spotlights new instrumental sounds, like Jimmy Herring’s acoustic guitar. Lead singer John Bell’s voice, a strong instrument that always managed to stand out even amidst the band’s long, loud jams, gets pushed even more to the forefront, and it shines; Bell is capable of re-interpreting himself without forcing the songs in new directions. Keyboardist Jojo Hermann shows off a range of instrumental tones, all of which can be clearly heard.
Beyond all that, “Wood” finds the band using the new format to become a different type of band. I’ve tended to think that Panic’s strongest element was its rhythm section of bassist Dave Schools, drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Sunny Ortiz, capable of laying down deep, muscular grooves. But here rhythm, or at least those familiar, dense grooves, is expressed in subtler ways, as the skeleton on which the songs are built.
“Time Waits,” one of four tracks included here from the Belly Up shows, gets a dusky jazz feel, with Hermann taking advantage of the relatively quiet setting to cook on the piano. “Tall Boy” is reinvented as country swing as singer John Bell shows off a more nimble vocal touch. “Picking Up the Pieces,” one of Panic’s slower, quieter songs to begin with, sounds like this was the way it was meant to be played. A cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” just wouldn’t be this tender at Panic’s customary volume.
As for whether Panic can still be the flame-throwing jam band they are when fully electrified, check out “Imitation Leather Shoes,” with Herring not simply transferring his electric guitar licks to the acoustic, but tailoring his playing for the acoustic six-string. “Fixin’ to Die,” with Col. Bruce Hampton sitting in on vocals, boogies at a wildly uptempo pace.