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”
The Widespread Panic album that did it for me was ‘Til the Medicine Takes. We wore that CD out and “Climb to Safety” still raises goosebumps. We’ve bought a lot of their albums and always found something to enjoy but over the past few years we kind of lost rack of the band and what they were doing. Then a guy I know reported that he’d caught their set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this past spring and they rocked.
Well, you know, Panic are a jam band and they’ve always been known for putting on great shows and great shows don’t always translate into great – or even good – albums so I didn’t run right out and pick up Dirty Side Down. But I hadn’t listened to the band in a while so I finally decided to give it a try. When a new CD comes into the house we often put it on for the first time as we sit down to dinner and check it out while we eat. Almost always, dinner and conversation trump the music and serious listening doesn’t happen until later. Not this time.
Dirty Side Down opens with “Saint Ex” and it blew us away. Eating went on very quietly and conversation stopped as the song took over. The track opens with a bit of guitar drone, like 10 zillion other songs, and then breaks into a couple of bars of what sounds like a picked electrified steel string guitar that shifts into a lead guitar segment that instantly grabs attention with a wide screen western sound that I find irresistible. The vocal comes in and we’re in familiar Widespread Panic mode, ok, back to dinner. Then a heavy descending rhythm guitar break hits at about 1:30 into the song and this is beginning to sound like Panic has grown in new and exciting ways. “Saint Ex” is a terrific song that kicks off a fine album.
When a band has been playing together as long as Widespread Panic and, moreover, has been placing a heavy emphasis on improvisation throughout that time, moments of magic can happen. There’s a refinement and sophistication in the interplay among the musicians that is hard to achieve in any other way. This produces studio recordings that are studded with moments, sometimes small and sometimes loud, that can take your breath away. Whether it’s Dave Schools extraordinary bass playing or episodes of subtle, intricate vocal interplay (which are just two of the things that struck me while I’m writing this review) repeated listening of Dirty Side Down is a highly rewarding experience.
If you’re a Panic fan you already have Dirty Side Down. If, like me, you know the band but have been away for a bit, now’s a good time to come back. And if Widespread Panic are a new band for you, Dirty Side Down is a great place to start.
For a great source for more live recordings of Widespread Panic than you could ever listen to, see our review of Driving Songs Vol. 2.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ The Live Anthology comes in two basic packages. One has 4 CDs of music. The other, which is being reviewed here has 5 CDs of music (the same 4 as in the CD-only set plus another), a Blu-Ray disc that contains all of the 62 tracks that are on the 5 CDs in both 5.1 Surround and 96K, 24-bit PCM stereo, a vinyl LP with a remastered bootleg of 4 tracks from 1976, a DVD with an unreleased documentary about the band called 400 Days made in the mid-1990s, a second DVD with an unreleased concert from 1978, a large booklet with “zomg! this band is so . . . !!!” from various people, Petty’s track-by-track comments on the tracks in the set and full details on when and where each track was recorded and who plays what on the track, and assorted other bits and pieces including silk screened stage passes and a Live Anthology blank-page notebook (?? wtf ??).
I didn’t watch the DVDs, listen to the vinyl or read the essays. I did listen to the music on the CDs and both mixes on the Blu-Ray disc. The Blur-Ray has the nice feature that you can switch back and forth between the stereo and surround mixes and it keeps you at the same point in the song. This made it possible to do an ABC comparison of the CD, high resolution stereo and surround versions by syncing the CD in it’s transport with the Blu-Ray in the Blu-Ray player. The Surround mix is very gentle with the rear speakers providing crowd noise and a much-dampened delay of the front channels in order to give a slight feeling of being in a live venue. As expected, the high resolution stereo provides greater clarity, depth, detail and dynamic range. However, this will only be apparent if you have a sound system that can reproduce the sound captured on the Blu-Ray. The recording engineers did an excellent job on The Live Anthology and the sound on the CDs is very, very good. The hi res stereo is better but you’re not getting a markedly inferior product if you buy the CDs. You are getting one less disc of music, however.
The Live Anthology is a love letter from the band to their fans. In many ways it is the polar opposite of the recently reviewed box set from Kraftwerk. With Kraftwerk you get nothing but eight of their albums remastered so that the sound is much better than what had previously been available on CD. With The Live Anthology you don’t get any of the the band’s previously released albums. Instead you get live versions (and I’m guessing most are previously unreleased) of (some of) their hits, album tracks, and covers. For many fans, this is all going to be new material.
The collection was produced by Mike Campbell, Ryan Ulyate and Petty. The lengths they went to in putting The Live Anthology together and making sure it was a box set that fans would treasure were extreme. They started with multi-track recordings of 169 live shows stretching over a 32 year period. Those shows were stored on 245 reels of 2″ analog tape and 36 500-GB hard drives. The 245 tapes had to be baked in an industrial oven at 130 degrees for 10 hours each in order to play back properly. Putting it all together they had 3,509 songs. They did rough mixes of all 3,509 (!). Played non-stop, back-to-back, that was 12 days worth of music. There were 245 different songs among the 3,509. They listened for five weeks and pulled what they considered the best version of each of the 245 songs. They evaluated all 245 and ended up with a final cut of 80 songs. These 80 songs were fully mixed (it took 6 months to do the full mixes). Petty then worked on sequencing the 80 tracks. He eliminated 19 songs because he didn’t find a way to sequence them that he liked. That left the 61 songs that are in the collection (the first track on disc one is a band introduction which puts the number of tracks in the set at 62). All of this took more than a year of work. That’s a lot of effort and the result is clear for all to hear on the discs. The Live Anthology is a brilliant collection. Sometimes obsession can be a very good thing.
Every fan of Tom Petty and Heartbreakers will want The Live Anthology. There are many ways to build a successful boxed set, but for a set designed to give fans of the band something they don’t already have it’s hard to imagine anything better than this. Tom Petty has thrown down the gauntlet to every other band with a reputation of putting on a good show. This is the way it should be done. Outstanding.
Listening to parts of The Live Anthology while working on the review I thought “This is the track I’ll add to the review”, then another track played and I thought “No, this is the one.” Then another track played and I thought “I have to have that one.” This went on for five discs of music. This is a band that’s all about the live show and The Live Anthology is a collection of what they think are their best live tracks from 32 years of performing. There’s no way one, two or ten tracks is going to cut it. So here’s two tracks from the disc that happened to be in the player as I write this sentence.
“Learning to Fly”
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
The Allman Brothers Band have been playing their brand of Southern rock, blues rock, jam band music for a long time now. They’ve survived personnel changes that would have stopped most other bands dead in their tracks. What other band could have continued after the loss of a guitar player of the magnitude of Duane Allman? They’ve been on top of the world, they’ve crashed and burned and they’ve gotten it back together. Throughout all of this they’ve not only survived, they’ve prospered. Unlike other long-lived bands like, say, The Rolling Stones who have been focusing much more on being rock stars than on the music for several decades, ABB can still be as musically exciting as they were in the beginning.
“Alltel Pavillion” is a 3 CD live recording of the last gig from their tour to promote their studio album “Hittin’ the Note”. The lineup is Gregg Allman (Hammond B-3, piano, vocals), Jaimoe and Butch Trucks (drums), Marc Quinones (Congas, percussion, vocals), Warren Haynes (lead and slide guitars, vocals), Derek Trucks (lead and slide guitars) and Oteil Burbridge (bass). Susan Tedeschi, Karl Denson and Branford Marsalis sit in on selected tracks. They’re not doing anything you haven’t heard them do before but as can happen with this band, they’re doing it very well. Marsalis plays on “Dreams” and “Whipping Post”, two of the three encores that make up disc 3 and his two numbers are among the highlights of the gig. Time and again I’ve heard jazz musicians, who are typically light years beyond most rock musicians in their level of musical knowledge and ability, play rock or funk that is flat and dull. They have chops to burn but not the feel or instinct that can make the simple chord changes and harmonics of rock soar. Marsalis is a happy exception. He burns on both his numbers and he fits well with the band.
Another highlight of the concert is a jam called “Instrumental Illness” that clocks in at just under 40 minutes. It features an extended drum break by Jaimoe and Butch Trucks that is terrific. Few bands feature two drum kits and the opportunity to hear two drummers making music together is a real treat. Many people say they don’t like drum solos. On the one hand, as a drummer I hate to hear this but on the other I understand why they don’t like what they hear. Too many rock drummers substitute technique and/or bombast for musicianship when it comes time to solo. Which means they play fast and loud. The result may be technically difficult but it’s often musically uninteresting. Drumming is about rhythm not speed. Jaimoe and Trucks have been with the band since the beginning and had been playing together for 34 years when this gig was recorded. 34 years! They’re like two bodies with one mind and their interaction on “Instrumental Illness” is like a graduate seminar in drumming. World Class.