Personnel: John Bell (vocals, guitar); John Hermann (vocals, keyboards); Jimmy Herring (guitar); Duane Trucks (drums); Domingo Ortiz (percussion).
Audio Mixer: John Keane.
Recording information: The Church, Echo Mountain Recording Studio.
Photographer: Andy Tennille.
Widespread Panic haven't released a studio record since 2010's Dirty Side Down. On their Vanguard debut, they pull off a first in their nearly 30-year career. These ten songs were cut with WP playing live from the floor of Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, North Carolina (an old church). Most were first takes, though there are a few minimal overdubs, and the band worked with longtime producer John Keane and featured temporary drummer Duane Trucks (Derek's younger brother) -- founding kitman Todd Nance went on sabbatical in 2014. The mix here is vibrant and warm; the live presentation creates a spacious dynamic that leaves WP's spiky grit intact. Opener "Sell Sell" is a cover of Alan Price's Brit R&B nugget, from his film score for Lindsay Anderson's 1973 film O Lucky Man!, which starred Malcolm McDowell. There isn't anything retro about this stoned, trancey groover though. It's swampy and snaky. The dirty wah-wah guitar vamp is highlighted by John Hermann's swirling B-3. Dave Schools' sinister bassline bridges Bob West's from Dr. John's "I Walk on Guilded Splinters" to Michael Henderson's on Miles Davis' "Theme from Jack Johnson" from Agharta. "Steven's Cat" was written by the band in the studio. Vocalist John Bell could find the blues in a soup can; he lets them flow here. Hermann's Wurlitzer adds funk from the bottom, while the rest of his keyboards emulate strings. In the backdrop, Trucks' bright snare and tom-toms meet a wall of ringing guitars. The gentle, lyrical, percussive intro to "Cease Fire" recalls Santana's "Song of the Wind" but it veers off into a Latin rock burner led by Domingo Ortiz's congas and Jimmy Herring's stinging guitar fills. Bell's falsetto on the tune is a welcome surprise. "Angels Don't Sing the Blues" is another jam the band wrote in the studio. It hovers between jazz and blues-rock, and is an excellent showcase for Herring. The reading of Canadian songwriter Murray McLauchlan's now obscure blues "Honky Red" (from the 1971 album Song from the Street) is a squalling rocker from the band's recent live set. Their take on Willie Dixon's "Tail Dragger" is a choogler that weds Cream's take on the composer's "Spoonful" to the Doors' read of his "Back Door Man." Widespread Panic even shine a light on their Southern rock roots with the Cowboy-esque "The Poorhouse of Positive Thinking" and the harder-edged Skynyrd-like slide guitar and piano boogie of "Welcome to My World." Street Dogs is Widespread Panic at their most vital. Making records this way seems to make them comfortable as well as creative. Hopefully, it won't be five years before we get another installment. ~ Thom Jurek