Widespread Panic | Free Somehow (Widespread)

cd_widespread.jpgFree Somehow is the band’s first studio effort featuring songs that were not previously "road tested" onstage in live performances.






Let me begin by saying I am a huge Widespread Panic fan and have been for about 17 years. I own all of their studio albums and numerous live releases and recordings. As most diehard Panic fans would agree, the essence of this giant of jam bands lies in its live performances. Widespread Panic is always best "experienced" onstage, rather than listened to on a record—much like the most notorious of such bands, the Grateful Dead, whose studio releases never amounted to great sales or accolades. Widespread Panic has rarely enjoyed mainstream radio play of its studio material, but rather relies on constant touring and a dedicated fan base that continues to grow based on its amazing live performances.

That said, Widespread Panic has indeed released some fine studio works over the years, including the 1993 classic Everyday and 2006’s Earth to America, arguably their best studio effort to date. After multiple listens to their latest effort, Free Somehow, I was hoping it would have the same impact as those previous greats—but still was left somehow feeling that it was lacking that "spark."

Free Somehow is certainly a milestone release for Panic in more ways than one. It is the first studio effort featuring songs that were not previously "road tested" onstage in live performances. By the time the band’s previous releases hit stores, most diehard fans had a chance to "warm up" to the tunes at Widespread’s stellar concerts. Perhaps that is a contributing factor to the individual songs not really having a singular impact.

The album is also the first release to feature new legendary guitarist Jimmy Herring, who permanently replaced founding member and original guitarist Michael Houser; in 2002, Houser passed away from pancreatic cancer, leaving a tremendous hole in the band. Herring fills those shoes better than anyone could, and his transcendent guitar work is the absolute highlight of the new album.

Free Somehow is certainly a departure from previous Panic efforts. Recorded at the Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas with legendary producer Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, Lenny Kravitz, Al Green), the album features an entirely new sound for the band with guest performances by the local Compass Point Orchestra, who provide a unique layer of string and woodwind arrangements to back the band.

The lead single, "Up All Night," is rich with the sound of horns, no doubt a very "catchy" tune that should translate well to the stage. The songs are good overall, but again the album as a whole seems to lack the impact of some of their best studio work. Fortunately for the fans, Panic will launch their spring tour in April in Washington, D.C., and will debut the new tunes as they were meant to be heard: loud and live. Check the band’s website for a full list of tour dates and ticket info. B- | Amy Burger

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