Like the Energizer Bunny of the jam band world, Widespread Panic keep going, and going and going. The juice that keeps that thumpity-thump pumping is now, as always, comprised of one part improvisation, one part collaboration and one part inspiration. Now in their 22nd year, the Southern Jam stalwarts collide all three components in the creation of a bevy of new songs to fuel to flames on their 10th studio album, Free Somehow.
Free Somehow is Panic’s second release with producer Terry Manning (2005’s Earth To America) and like their previous collaboration, the band recorded in Manning’s Nassau, Bahamas Compass Point studios. Just as on that album, Manning has embellished the proceedings with all manner of orchestral string sections, horn arrangements and back up singers.
While all of this flufferey may seem a far cry from the gritty maelstrom that characterizes the band’s live show, it mostly works in the studio setting, though these superfluities do occasionally border on the cheesy.
Free Somehow features a widening of the Panic palette in some terms, while taking advantage of the band’s strengths too. Panic has long hinted at their penchant for 70s soul in the form of their concert cover selections such as Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman.” Now, they’ve penned one of their own—“Angels on High”—which is one of the album’s standout. Augmented by string sections that suggest Manning’s work on those famous Stax records, the breezy “Angels On High” shows off vocalist John Bell at his emotive best…rasping and wailing, coaxing and cajoling. Album closer “Up All Night” treads similar territory in horn-buoyed sing-along fashion.
Bell scores lyrically, too, with the cunningly clever “Tickle The Truth,” during which he amusingly admits to blatantly “ripping off Dylan.” Another highlight includes the haunting “Dark Day Program,” co-penned by longtime collaborator Jerry Joseph.
And while Free Somehow is mostly comprised of songs not road tested on their legendarily rabid fan base, there are a few show-ready numbers like the fist-pumping anthem “Boom Boom Boom” (also co-penned by Joseph), and the hard-crunch headbanger “Flicker.”
Also notable of Free Somehow is that it is the first studio album to feature new guitarist, longtime journeyman Jimmy Herring. Herring’s lightning speed flair is apparent on “Walk on Flood” and elsewhere, but he shines most on the intricate and mesmerizing “Three Candles” which at once conjures the unique qualities of late guitarist Mike Houser while at the same time places Herring’s own stamp on what is perhaps the most classically “Panic” song to emerge since Mr. Houser’s passing.
Not all of it hits the mark, though. “Her Dance Needs No Body” tries to hard to be epic and sweeping and ends up disjointed and clunky instead. A couple of songs sound like a MAD-libbed version of a half-dozen other Panic songs, and some of the lyrics are uncharacteristically blunt. The horn and string arrangements that border on the cheesy sometimes do cross that line.
But in the end, Widespread Panic’s latest shows a band moving right along into their latter years with a keen sense of adventure and energy. Wisely using the studio as a different vehicle than the stage, Widespread Panic and Terry Manning have cooked up a document that reveals the contagious elements that have kept this band going, and going and going.