While listening to Widespread Panic’s most recent album, Dirty Side Down, I was exploring the web to see what the band was up to and found an interesting add-on to their website. Throughout their history the Panic have encouraged fans to record their shows and share them any way they wanted. No restrictions, no demands that they get paid. Like any professional band, Widespread Panic records their own shows from the main sound board and now they are making their own recordings available for purchase.
The band has set up a website where you can buy recordings of their shows. It looks like they have every show they’ve done since 2005 up on the site. There are also selected older shows, package deals that combine several shows performed on successive nights at one venue, multi-CD sets of selected songs from a particular tour, and various other kinds of packages and combinations. The shows and packages are available in MP3 and FLAC for download, or you can buy them on CDs. There is also a CD + MP3 option.
There are hundreds of shows and/or packages and combos available on the site. Unless you want to buy a show you were at or are an obsessive fan fixated on the band who has to have all of their shows, there are too many choices. How do you decide which show to pick when there are hundreds available? There is a recommended shows feature on the site but it looks like it’s fed randomly from a pool of shows and you have no idea why any given show is recommended. There are also fan comments on each show but these are generally useless because they tend to be ecstatic in one way or another.
The band provides a solution to this problem with collections called Driving Songs. Each volume of Driving Songs contains a selection of songs from one tour chosen and mixed by the Front of the House engineer Chris Rabold. There are seven volumes covering tours from summer 2007 to spring 2010. Choosing from seven is a lot easier than choosing from hundreds. I picked Vol. 2 from Fall 2007 mainly because it looked like the largest of the Driving Songs sets – it comes on four CDs – and downloaded it in FLAC format.
Is it any good? Are you kidding? The sound engineer’s pick of tracks from a jam band that makes it’s living based on its live shows? Driving Songs Vol 2 ought to come with a warning label. When Widespread Panic catch fire – and they catch fire on almost every track in the compilation – they can burn your house down if you’re not careful. Singing in key can be a struggle at times and if off-key vocals are a special problem for you, approach with care. There’s no problem with the playing, however, and more often than not Panic tears the place up. Jam bands are infamous for aimless noodling while they try and find someplace to go or something to do but Panic largely avoids this problem on Driving Songs Vol 2. The guitar work is usually intense and focused with structured solos and some mind-blowing interplay. The band is also capable of playing in a variety of styles, not only by playing different types of songs but in the style of guitar playing chosen for a track. For example, the guitar lead on “Machine” sounds like it came straight out of the Frank Zappa Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar songbook. Good stuff.
Widespread Panic are known for the amazing covers they do in their live shows and there is a fine selection on Driving Songs Vol 2. The compilation opens with Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters”. Other covers include Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”. Although it will probably be taken as sacrilege by rabid Mettalica fans, the Panic also do a killer version of “Enter Sandman”. This band has no fear when it comes to taking on anything at all that strikes their fancy and more often than not they pull it off.
If you’re a big fan of Widespread Panic and haven’t yet discovered the area of their website where they sell the recordings of their shows, you’re going to feel like you just died and went to heaven. If you enjoy world-class jam band guitar rave ups Driving Songs Vol 2 is right up your alley. Four CDs of this type of music is too much for me to listen to at one time; it all starts to sound the same after awhile. But the quality across this compilation is so high you can pick it up anywhere, listen as long as you like, and be guaranteed to hear terrific music. I expect it will take awhile to wear Driving Songs Vol 2 out but when we do, I’ll pick up another in the Driving Songs series without any hesitation whatsoever.
“Road to Damascus”
“Werewolves of London”