Album Review: Widespread Panic – Dirty Side Down

Jam bands are in a group all by themselves, a unique breed of equal parts prog, blues, and general improvisation all around. Jam fans cater to acts that have a heartwarming and earthy foundation to them, that dispense an atmosphere of familial welcoming.

Phish, Grateful Dead, Dave Matthews Band, and of course, Widespread Panic; they are mainstays in this category, managing to keep ever-loyal listeners coming in droves to their concerts and festivals year after year.

Widespread Panic has a mile-long discography of jam, blues, and alt-country records, but the sound never changes much — folksy tone overlapped with varying degrees of improvisation, from bar room western to Gothic American south to straight-up hippie rock or piano-heavy jazz.

Dirty Side Down carries most of everything here at scattered intervals, with broad strokes of both mainstream songs (“Saint Ex”) and moments of pure fervor (“North”), and even a spell of something very Leonard Cohen in the title track.

Some songs are more country with additional elements (“Shut Up And Drive”), while the majority of the record is a composite of everything Widespread Panic is well-known for in the studio. An unfortunate drawback to jam bands, however, is that some things are better for a live experience and, as such, this is the preferred medium to hear jam music for some; Dirty Side Down feels a bit too stapled to its own internal gears (“When You Coming Home”) and, with exceptions (“Cotton Was King”), a lot of this music will require some extra swing or improv to truly justify a concert showing.

The biggest defeat with Dirty Side Down, however, comes at complacency. One big thing with me in terms of jam music is creativity, and though Widespread Panic has never been entirely short on that or energy, this album’s presence has no real stand-out bits that say “Hey, we’re Widespread Panic, and we’re going to be here for a long ass time!” Here is a band with loyalty up the wazoo, much like others mentioned, and yet we get the sensation these guys are stuck in only one vein, even for jam — mix in some uncertainty as to what emotional tangent Widespread Panic is trying to take us into, and we’re left with a mere “meh”.

Dirty Side Down is another very motley album in Widespread Panic’s long line of take ’em or leave ’em recordings, and the fans will enjoy it. Whether your opinion of Widespread Panic lands on “glorified Allman Brothers” or “underrated southern rock” or somewhere in between and beyond, sometimes the best things can be admired as more of a backdrop than a major premise. Widespread Panic is a well-painted, distantly admired backdrop, loaded with passion and many beautiful shades of brown — Dirty Side Down strikes up its own palette, but in the end, we get more Bob Ross for your buck.

Say it with me, hippies…”Happy trees!”


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