Widespread Panic

Widespread Panic

Everybody loves surprises, that feeling of not knowing what might be around the next corner -- and that's exactly the vibe that Widespread Panic gives off every time they unleash a new album. Sometimes that means taking listeners on a nice, smooth ride, and sometimes it means making 'em hold on tight, but either way, it means the trip is gonna be worth it.

On Dirty Side Down, their ATO debut and 11th studio offering overall, Widespread Panic offer listeners the sonic equivalent of a dip in a cool mountain stream. At once bracing and cleansing, invigorating and soothing, the album is something of an emotional travelogue, its ebb and flow evident in every aspect of the instrumental interplay -- skittering rhythms, fanciful guitar flights and low-slung melodies alike -- as well as the pensive-but-not-ponderous lyrical tone. "We didn't necessarily have an overall vision for the album going in, because we never really have things that cut and dried," says singer-guitarist John Bell. "We all came in with some ideas, and had a few bits of subject matter that we really wanted to touch on, but the one thing we all agreed about was the fact that we wanted to make sure we could play every song live and really enjoy playing all of them."

The sprawling, serpentine "Saint Ex" sets the tenor of the album beautifully, with guitarist Jimmy Herring unspooling indigo-hued lines that weave gracefully around Bell's impressionistic short story -- a tale that uses the life of Little Prince writer Antoine St. Exupery as the foundation for a poignant tale of the thin lines that connect us as people and the circumstances that sometimes put a kink in those lines. Such twists and turns permeate Dirty Side Down, from the title track -- a breathless excursion that reminds us that life is more about the journey than the mere act of getting from point A to point B -- to the breezy instrumental voyage laid out in "St. Louis Jam," a piece that's long played a part in the sextet's live performances.

"Quite a few of these songs had been around for a while, like 'St. Louis' and 'Visiting Day,'" says Bell. "But a lot of them, people might not recognize from the live sets because they've changed a lot -- some of them with different tempos, some with different chord structures. That's the beauty of working with these guys, there's never a sense of that song is my baby, you can't mess with it."

There's a lot of subtle messing going on throughout Dirty Side Down, from drummer Todd Nance's gritty lead vocal on "Clinic Cynic" to the alternately fierce and friendly guitar sparring that veins the closer, "Cotton Was King," a tune redolent of the Band at its sepia-toned best. "Everybody in the band has a really broad musical vocabulary, and sometimes we use certain parts of it, sometimes we keep certain parts on hold," says Jimmy Herring, who, at four years worth of service, is the newest Panic recruit. "Every song is donated to the cause, I like to say. It's almost subconscious after a while."



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