Widespread Panic, Earth To America
(Sanctuary Records, CD)
Athens, Georgia's Widespread Panic are known for their meat 'n' potatoes approach to jam. Unlike their more progressively minded peers, WP trade in monolithic guitar rock that rarely, if ever, catches fire. Their latest, Earth to America, is about as exciting as watching paint dry, but with less in the way of payoff.
Over the years, WP have amassed a loyal fan base, largely without the benefit of radio play. The reasons for their success remain a mystery to me, however; Panic tunes are hardly interesting, with jejune lyrics and contrived jams. Guess there's no accounting for taste.
The new disc follows a simple recipe: Take a bland, late-period Allman Brothers record. Prune it of any remaining passion. Stir in some cheesy bongos and toothless guitar. Stick it in an easy-bake jam oven, and - voila! - you've got a 10-track lump of Earth.
Contenders for lamest cut include the generic blues "Ribs & Whiskey" and the limp "Solid Rock," which shamelessly pilfers the bass line from the Allman Bros.' "Midnight Rider." Did they think no one would notice?
WP lost longtime guitarist Michael Houser to pancreatic cancer a handful of years ago. Curiously, it hasn't affected their overall sound. The solos seem shorter, but with such pedestrian arrangements upon which to noodle, it might be an improvement.
I had a difficult time listening to this disc without my fists clenching so hard that typing became difficult. Entire segments are lifted from other songs. Vocalist John Bell sings like he's got a hernia. The rhythm section is stiff as a board. "When the Clowns Come Home" is as bad as it gets, with dopey riffs and come-hither lyrics delivered like a pervy uncle.
"You Should Be Glad" has a wee bit of oomph. The song's Doors-esque chord progression provides a decent foundation for solos, of which there are a few. But, like many WP numbers, it's too long by half, and the band says everything it needs to in the first seven minutes. Guess what. They keep going.
Earth to America is a great example of how the modern jam scene has become a clearinghouse for imagination-deficient musicians. By simply regurgitating the work of their infinitely more talented predecessors, Widespread Panic are helping to sound rock 'n' roll's death knell. Nonetheless, fans will be happy to hear they're playing Burlington's Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday, Sept. 19.