By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
There was quite a bit of foofraw when Phish released Billy Breathes a few months ago. Much was made of the jam-happy group's most convincing foray into the realm of accessible song, but that's a space that Georgia's Widespread Panic has occupied for years, claiming the birthright left to them (in varying degrees) by Southern lights like the Allman Brothers, the Dixie Dregs, and Sea Level. This reliance on standard songcraft cost them in the early '90s--Phish's phloundering about their arcane and self-invented cosmology seemed to interest more people--but as the decade ripens, there seems less delight in that kind of density. Buoyed by rising popular interest, the boys in Widespread Panic--essentially the same line-up since their first album, 1988's Space Wrangler--are finally catching up with their weird cousins from Vermont.
Both bands share a heritage bestowed by a certain band not necessary to name here--a preference for live performance over studio work, guitar superstructure, and a fanatical following that invests them with great significance--but Widespread Panic has always been the greasier of the two, the chicken-fried steak instead of maple syrup, the humid summer night versus the crisp winter morning, the band whose fans don't necessarily require giant chessboards, Dungeons and Dragons-style mythology, or trampolines.
Bombs & Butterflies does little to disturb the character WP has established. There's the surging cruiser "Radio Child," a paean to the airwaves, and the concert-tested "Tall Boy," a mushroom-gobbling exercise in pastoralism that's an epic journey in four minutes. Band-to-fan philosophizing has long been a WP mainstay, and therefore you have "You've Got Yours," a bottom-loaded rocker equally heavy on regret, held up out of the mire by a spooky monster-movie organ part; "Gradle" is a gentle urging to hold fast to inner beauty and reward. Other songs use hope and glory as narrative linchpins.
Like Phish, however, Widespread's currency is not yet that common. The casual listener might stand outside the counterbalance of sweet melody and massive riffing, soul-man vocals, and guitar acrobatics all day without receiving a clear-cut invitation to come inside. For all their stretched-out comfort and cohesiveness, WP at times seems to have every bit as tight a bite on their own tail (or is it tale?) as their piscatorial pals. Time--and perhaps another album or two--will no doubt tell whether or not they can let go of themselves long enough to afford anybody else a handhold.