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”
There has been no end to the posthumous releases of Jimi Hendrix material since he died in 1970. Some of it has been good; some of it has been nothing more than a blatant attempt to cash on on Hendrix’ s great fame and extraordinary talent with the release of crappy recordings of studio noodling. Valleys of Neptune is something different. The album is built around the last recordings Hendrix made with the original members of The Jimi Hendrix Experience Noel Redding (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums). Much of the album was recorded in 1969 after the release of Electric Ladyland. Hendrix was flying high and it looked like there was no end to what he could achieve.
With the exception of “Mr. Bad Luck” which was recorded in 1967 all of the tracks on Valleys of Neptune were recorded in 1969. Hendrix, Redding and Mitchell play together on nine of the album’s twelve cuts. Redding and Mitchell rerecorded their bass and drum parts in 1987 on 3 of the tracks, “Mr. Bad Luck”, “Lover Man”, and “Crying Blue Rain”. Billy Cox, Hendrix’s old friend who replaced Redding when the tension between Hendrix and Redding reached the breaking point plays on three tracks, a hot rendition of “Stone Free”, “Bleeding Heart” and the title track.
Hendrix on a bad day is better than most other guitarists at their peak so it will come as no surprise that his playing throughout Valleys of Neptune is terrific. The blues based numbers “Hear My Train A Comin'”, “Lover Man” and “Red House” are outstanding. Redding and Mitchel’s overdubs laid down almost 20 years after the original recordings are nicely mixed with Hendrix vocals and guitar so that they don’t appear out of place or intrusive. There’s not a bad cut on the CD and it is very nicely produced.
Ever since I had the great good fortune to see Jimi Hendrix and the original Experience live in what were almost perfect circumstances I’ve been at least quietly disappointed by his released recordings and Valleys of Neptune is no exception. This is a foolish reaction as neither a studio nor a live recording could possibly capture what is was like to be in the room with Hendrix when he was in full flight. If you are a Hendrix fan Valleys of Neptune is a must-buy and you probably already have it. If you have any interest in Hendrix’s music and you don’t have Valleys of Neptune, check it out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Sometime around 1990 Alligator Records put a promotional tour on the road headlined by Buddy Guy. I caught the show in a rundown VFW that was called a “hall” but was more like a shack. It was the kind of place where the bar had been been nailed together from 2×4’s and plywood, mismatched straightback chairs and scarred tables were scattered haphazardly about, and the “stage” was a small platform raised six inches off the floor against a side wall. The place stank of old beer, stale sweat and dead ends.
I forget who the opening act was. Lucky Peterson and Kenny Neal combined to deliver a roaring second set that came within an eyelash of setting the place on fire. When they finished the beer was fresh, the sweat was dripping and there was no end in sight. The place was hotter than a motherfucker. Guy was the headliner but it surely looked like Peterson and Neal had taken the crowd as high as it could go.
Guy’s band came on sometime around 1:00 am. They were hard and tight but there was no Buddy Guy. Okay, I thought, they’re using the opening where the band does a number and then they introduce the leader. The opening number hit the break and Guy’s unmistakeable guitar came roaring from . . . from where? He wasn’t on stage and there wasn’t any dressing room or curtain he could enter from. Was he crouched down hiding behind one of the amps? Nope. People began looking around the club, was he in the crowd? Nope. Finally somebody found him. The son of a bitch was out in the parking lot all by himself ripping off a raging guitar lead that ignited the bonfire that Peterson and Neal had laid. People went berserk and spilled out the door. Surrounded by screaming people Guy ramped it up higher. It was incandescent.
Buddy Guy was 54 years old that night. But that was then and this is now and now Buddy Guy is 72. 72 with a new record. Can he still bring it? Are you fucking kidding me? He can bring it and take it back home again. The idea of a 72 year old man singing I’m-a-stud songs seems ridiculous until you hear Guy on numbers like “Out in the Woods” and album opener “”Best Damn Fool”. Then you think maybe it ain’t so ridiculous, you think maybe you better lock up your wives and daughters. Guy doesn’t sound “good for his age”, he sounds dangerous.
Skin Deep has attracted attention because of the presence of a number of high profile guests like Robert Randolf, Eric Clapton, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. The guests fit seemlessly with Guy and his band and they all acquit themselves admirably but the story here is Buddy Guy. He sings with the voice and conviction of a man a third his age and he can play guitar in circles around almost anyone on the planet. This cat can play. One of the nicer features of the CD’s packaging is that it lists the guitar Guy plays on each track so non-guitar playing listeners who may have heard about, say a ’57 Strat or a ’74 Telecaster can link the sound with the guitar.
This is a terrific album from a man who is a national treasure. The title may be Skin Deep but Guy is coming from deep in the marrow and he’s just as exciting now as he was when he was a youngster playing out in the parking lot.
The Heavy’s Great Vengeance and Furious Fire sounds like it creeped out of a twisted and demented alternate reality of blues, soul and R&B. It’s a very strange – and very good – CD. Album opener “Brukpocket’s Lament” is a slow, almost glacial, blues built on a simple two-note descending bass riff with a vocal from another planet. When the vocalist sings “I’m startin’ to talk like I’m mentally ill” you believe him. It’s a dark and disturbing way to start an album and it works brilliantly. The very first song knocks the listener askew, demolishes preconceptions and sets you up perfectly for the set of music that follows.
The Heavy are a five-piece out of Bath, England composed of Dan Taylor (guitars), Kelvin Swaby (vocals), Hannah Collins (keyboards), Chris Ellul (drums) and Spencer Page (bass). Their music is hard to describe. Clearly based in the blues, R&B and soul of times past they often use dirty guitars and clattering percussion and have an uncanny ability to make compelling music based on viscous rhythms that would sound like tedious sludge in the hands of almost any other band. Great Vengeance and Furious Fire is shot through with the static and sound snippets of AM radio stations beamed from no town you’ve ever visited, the scratch and pop of old vinyl LPs and vocals that sometimes sound like they were recorded through a busted amp. It feels like you put the CD in the player and opened a portal to a time and place that sounds like America of the 50’s through the 70’s except much more dangerous. The last song, “Who Needs the Sunshine”, ends with several seconds of vinyl rotation scratch from which a twinkling, skipping piano slowly emerges and a vocal ballader from the late ’50s early ’60s sings “Forever my darling . . .” the first half of a couplet that never completes as the record goes silent. It’s exquisitely creepy.
All of this could sound like a one-off novelty record if The Heavy didn’t do it so well. Their vision is warped but they have a solid grasp of the music they mine for inspiration. Great Vengeance and Furious Fire is very strange but it’s also very good music. I don’t know if it’s the sort of thing everyone will enjoy but I’ll be standing in line at the CD store the day they release their next album.
When film companies don’t make a movie available for review before release it’s a sure sign the movie sucks so hard they don’t want the critics to spread the word before they can fleece the suckers for at least something over the opening weekend. With this in mind I was dismayed when the Raconteurs released Consolers of the Lonely within a week of announcing they were even working on a second album. The CD was out before anyone had a chance to listen to it and I thought it was going to be terrible. Wrong again.
The Raconteurs are something of an all-star band composed of critical darlings Jack White (guitars, vocals, synthesizer) and Brendan Benson (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and indie stalwarts Jack Lawrence (bass, vocals) and Patrick Keeler (drums, percussion). All-star bands are usually cesspits of ego and pomp but if any of that’s going on with The Raconteurs it doesn’t come through on Consolers of the Lonely. This is a very good band composed of four guys who not only play well but play well together. The range of different types of music they cover is impressive and all four of them make equal contributions to its success. Hard to ask for much more than that.
The title track opens the album with four bars of a lurching blues-rock guitar riff that is met with a drum rhythm played at a slightly faster tempo that seems to clash with the guitar. The new tempo drives the song until they bring the guitar riff back and meld the two together after a verse or two. It’s an arresting and very effective way to begin an album and it serves as a good indication of what’s coming. These guys are going to mix it up both in terms of the variety of music they play and in the inventive ways they juxtapose rhythms, riffs and musical styles. “The Switch and the Spur” is a widescreen, big sky western of a song. “Top Yourself” is a stanky blues driven by a killer rhythm shift. “Many Shades of Black” is a horn-driven R&B number. “Pull This Blanket Off” sounds something like Exile on Main St era Stones. And so it goes, each track presents something new and the more you listen, you more nuance you hear in the carefully layered instruments and vocals.
Not everything works, at least not to my ears. “Salute Your Solution” is about three minutes of run of the mill rock with obnoxious caterwauling vocals. It’s also the first single released from the album which would seem to indicate that although I really like their album I’m not really in tune with the band.
A raconteur is a skilled storyteller and if we equate telling stories with playing different types of music, The Raconteurs take their name seriously. We are in the hands of a group of skilled musicians here who are intent on telling us a series of interesting and very different stories. If you like inventive rock that is very well played, give Consolers of the Lonely some time.