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.”
Widespread Panic cut its teeth, like so many of its forebears, on the southern bar circuit, where winning fans and influencing patrons takes a unique combination of musical panache and from-the-gut persistence. John Bell and Michael Houser had spent the better part of five years writing, playing and racking up life experiences as collaborators and friends by the time the fully-coalesced band’s first official show took place in 1986. From there, the Panic spread stealthily but immutably, via disc -- their first full-length, Space Wrangler, followed in 1987 -- and, even more importantly, the constant gigging that shaped them into one of the era’s most extraordinary live bands. Panic separated themselves from the crowd by working both ends of the sonic spectrum -- crafting tightly-wound and memorable songs and using those as jumping off points for improvisations that turn heads and then keep them bobbing.
“People have recorded tapes of us doing a song for 20 minutes live and sometimes when it will come out on a record, they’ll say ‘why is it just five minutes long?,’” says bassist Dave Schools, with a laugh. “That’s kind of cool, though, I think that most people don’t have a pre-conceived notion and they like the air of mystery. I know we do.”
The 1992 arrival of keyboardist John Hermann added another layer to the thickly textured Panic canvas -- as was evident in the funky, sinuous grooves that dominated classic albums like 1993’s Everyday and Ain’t Life Grand, which followed a year later. For the next several years, they’d seldom stay in one place long enough to gather moss, criss-crossing the country and putting notch after notch on their collective belt -- like playing what’s widely considered to be the biggest record-release party of all time (a 100,000 strong hometown gathering to mark the release of Light Fuse, Get Away).
Panic weathered its share of ups and downs as the new millennium broke, and the highs were very high -- like their headlining slot on two nights of the inaugural Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2002. But the same year, Widespread Panic endured its darkest period, as co-founder Michael Houser was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer -- an illness he battled bravely, following his musical passion, until he passed away in August at the age of 40.
While the band soldiered on, taking a break to pursue solo projects for a goodly bit of 2004 and spending time nurturing one of their pet charities, the Tunes for Tots program, it wasn’t until longtime friend Herring signed on in late 2006 that the band really got back in gear. “All I ever wanted was to be in a band, and not just with a bunch of guys who get together and play,” says Herring. “And with this band, it’s a band. No one person is more important than the others, and in my mind, that’s what music should be.”
That communality runs through every aspect of Widespread Panic, in their many socially-driven efforts -- like the band’s efforts in rebuilding homes in their beloved New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina -- and most importantly, in their music. It positively radiates from their plaintive version of “This Cruel Thing” (a previously unreleased song from the pen of frequent collaborator Vic Chesnutt, who passed away at Christmas of 2009) as well as the hard-scrabble tone of the steely-eyed “North,” on which percussionist Sunny Ortiz turns up the heat measurably. It’s a seamless thing, and that’s just the way they like it.
“We’ve always considered the camaraderie of the band to be as important as anything else, more important, actually,” says Nance. “There are bands where guys only see each other when they’re on tour, and then maybe even only when they’re at the shows. This band isn’t like that. It really is like a family and I think that comes through in the music. I hope so.”