Early in their career, Widespread Panic were tagged as a poor-man's Allman Brothers Band, dismissed as a group with an obvious talent for jamming but one lacking the memorable songs needed to make a lasting impact. But recent events have conspired to encourage a reevaluation of this Athens, Georgia, sextet. Late in 1995, the band hooked up with acclaimed indie singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt for a studio session, and the combination clicked. Last year, Panic's label, Capricorn, released the results of that collaboration as Nine High a Pallet. Though the CD was issued under the name of Brute, everyone knew who the players were, and the disc's warm reception extended into a warm rethinking of what Widespread Panic may be all about.
Going against the grain has always seemed natural and just plain fun for the band. But in truth, it wasn't only the Chesnutt connection that altered opinions about Widespread Panic -- which includes Dave Schools (bass, vocals), John Bell (vocals, guitar), John Hermann (keyboards, vocals), Michael Houser (guitar, vocals), Todd Nance (drums) and Domingo S. Ortiz (percussion). The group's last two CDs, 1995's Ain't Life Grand and the newly released Bombs and Butterflies, have also helped shift perceptions. Going against the freewheeling grain of the first three Widespread Panic releases, the newer outings have placed more emphasis on songcraft, though leaving room for the occasional all-out jam. Bombs and Butterflies, in particular, boasts a bounty of tightly constructed songs with all the pop appeal of hits by other rootsy, jam-oriented groups such as the Black Crowes, Blues Traveler and Big Head Todd and the Monsters.
The band members themselves are the first to admit that the tightening up of the Widespread sound is no illusion. And it always helps to have a fine producer such as John Keane on board, a man adept at applying gloss to the group's sound without making the finished product so polished that, as Dave Schools says, "we can see ourselves."
So far, the increased cohesion of Bombs and Butterflies and Ain't Life Grand -- not to mention the critical credibility granted the band by the Brute CD -- has failed to translate into widespread popularity. While other jam bands have had million-selling releases, Widespread Panic continues to attract a modest audience. Typically, though, the band refuses to get caught up in the expectations created by other groups' success. Sure, the group's members admit, it's been an uphill fight, and it will continue to be an uphill fight. But the slower progress, they add, is often the saner way to go.
"You begin to realize that it seems like the more gradual the ascent, the less harsh the descent," Schools says. "I mean, how in the world does Hootie and the Blowfish follow up on a record that sells 15 million copies? Expectations become the whole thing, whereas the only expectations we've ever had for ourselves is just to improve our songwriting, improve the PA systems, improve the venues -- slowly but surely. And consequently, we've built a really loyal following that will go through sheer hell to get to the next show."
Thank goodness for small victories.
-- Alan Sculley
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Widespread Panic performs at 9 p.m. Saturday, November 22, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Tickets are $16. For info, call 629-3700.
Gordian Knot -- If the bizarre phenomenon that is Riverdance has been your only taste of Celtic culture, you might want to check out this promising Houston bunch. Founded in 1994 by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Cidnie MacNamee, Gordian Knot performs traditional Celtic folk, as well as original songs inspired by the centuries-old forms. And even if the experts are right and the Druids didn't build Stonehenge, they did jam. Also featuring Ray Younkin on guitar and bass, and the lovely Amy Price on fiddle, doumbek and vocals, Gordian Knot promises a get-up-and-dance, sing-along, "rock and reel" good time as they celebrate the release of their second CD, Jenny Adair. Just don't ask them to sing "Danny Boy." At 8:30 p.m. Thursday, November 20, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $6. 528-5999. (Seth Hurwitz)
I-45 -- "Freewheeling" and "whimsical" are two words that come to mind when taking in the vocal shenanigans of I-45's Tech. Ron B. (the one with the starch-permed Afro) and Tripp Von Slipp (the one who looks like Chris Elliott with hair). The Houston pair describes their very own, indefinable take on hip-hop -- think Rage Against the Machine meets Spike Jones -- as slip-hop. It has earned I-45 kudos all across Texas and as far away as the East Coast, where they've been known to tour on occasion. Slip-hop's eccentric grooves will be available to all come Friday, which marks the release of I-45's debut CD, The Regal Beagle. Of course, the title refers to the tavern of Three's Company fame; we wouldn't expect anything less conventional from these knuckleheads. With Bickley, Dynamite Boy and Riverfenix at 8:30 p.m., Friday, November 21, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Cover is $7. 862-7580. (Craig D. Lindsey