Widespread Panic: The Best-of That Never Was, Part One

Some five and a half years ago, I worked on a project that would never see the light of day. A record label decided to put together The Definitive Collection, a 2CD set surveying the best from the dozen albums popular jam band Widespread Panic released during its time with Capricorn Records. For reasons having to do with licensing etc., that album’s release was scotched.

I wrote the liner notes for that album-that-never-was, and since it seems to me a bit of a waste to have them end up in a Raiders of the Lost Ark final-scene warehouse kind of state, here they are, in two parts. – bk

Though some members had played together before, Widespread Panic officially formed in early 1986 in the group members’ hometown of Athens, Georgia, determinedly building a following based on their dynamic live shows. The group eventually earned a reputation as one of the most popular and beloved bands on the so-called jam band circuit.

Starting out on a small independent label with their debut album (1988’s Space Wrangler), the group was quickly signed to a major label deal with Capricorn Records, the legendary Macon, Georgia-based label founded in 1969 by Phil Walden. Capricorn was also home to the groundbreaking and highly influential releases by The Allman Brothers Band. The ABB was – along with the Grateful Dead – a chief inspiration for the musicians in Widespread Panic.

But WSP have always been more than the sum of their influences, which extend well beyond the genres of southern rock and even jazz into something uniquely their own. This collection samples the highlights of Widespread Panic’s years on Capricorn, adding in some rare tracks that have appeared before only on various-artists compilations. And as is only fitting for a band of WSP’s stature, The Definitive Collection draws from both the studio and live work of the band’s first dozen years.

During those years, Widespread Panic’s lineup remained very stable: on guitar and vocals was John Bell; Michael Houser also played guitar and sang; Dave Schools played bass and sang; the two-man percussion section featured Domingo S. Ortiz and drummer Todd Nance. The band started off without a keyboard player, instead using session keyboardists as needed on recordings, but in 1990 added T Lavitz, later replaced by John Hermann. As of 2016, the Widespread Panic lineup includes three founding members (Bell, Schools, Ortiz) and longtime member Hermann, plus guitarist Jimmy Herring, who joined in 2006. In 2014, Nance temporarily left WSP; his drum seat is currently occupied by multi-instrumentalist Duane Trucks. Founding guitarist Michael Houser passed away in 2002.

Space Wrangler
Almost exactly two years after they played their first gig as Widespread Panic, the group released Space Wrangler in February 1988. A small Atlanta-based label, Landslide Records, handled the release of the record; now exceedingly rare, original vinyl pressings of Space Wrangler change hands for upwards of $200. The album was subsequently reissued after WSP inked a deal with Capricorn, but only in CD and cassette formats.

Space Wrangler marked the beginning of Widespread Panic’s long and creatively fertile working relationship with influential producer/engineer John Keane. Keane’s credits include many big names who’ve come out of – or passed through – the University of Georgia town, including Randall Bramblett, R.E.M, Matthew Sweet, Vic Chesnutt, 10,000 Maniacs, and Robyn Hitchcock, to name only a handful.

Three Space Wrangler tracks are included here. “Travelin’ Light” is a faithful cover of the 1976 J.J. Cale tune from the composer’s Troubadour LP. The shuffling “Chilly Water” is built upon the solid foundation of Dave Schools’ hypnotic bass groove. “Driving Song” stretches out to deliver a guitar tour-de-force, plus some ace fiddle work from guest player David Blackmon.

Widespread Panic
In Summer 1990, the band began recording new tracks, again with Keane at the console of his Athens studio. The project was dubbed Mom’s Kitchen. But before any kind of release could be arranged, the band signed a six-album contract with Capricorn, and commenced a series of new recordings with the label’s “house” producer Johnny Sandlin, a former member of Hour Glass with Gregg and Duane Allman. Many of the songs on the critically well-received Widespread Panic (released July 1991) were re-recorded versions of the Mom’s Kitchen material. Sessions for Widespread Panic took place in three different studios, in Nashville, Decatur (Atlanta), and Memphis. For the Widespread Panic sessions, the band added famed Dixie Dregs keyboardist T Lavitz as a member, though he would rejoin the Dregs before sessions for WSP’s next studio album began. (Lavitz passed away in 2010.)

This collection features four cuts from Widespread Panic. “Walkin’ (For Your Love)” features a laid-back Bell vocal atop a bouncy, pop melody that recalls The Grateful Dead at their most mainstream. Despite its title, the ska-flavored “Love Tractor” seems to have little to do with the popular Athens new wave band of the same name. “C. Brown” is a wistful story-song. The kinetic “Weight of the World” features tasty horn charts from The Memphis Horns.

Live From the Georgia Theatre, Athens, GA
Widespread Panic eventually came to the notice of actor/director Billy Bob Thornton. A 1991 concert in the band’s hometown was filmed and produced by Thornton, and released on VHS in 1992 under the title Live From the Georgia Theatre, Athens, GA. An audio version of the concert was also released in 2003; two tracks from that set are included here.

For “Send Your Mind,” Widespread Panic digs deep into the Van Morrison catalog for a powerful, riffy blues rocker originally recorded in 1967. The band channels the sound and spirit of Steppenwolf on “Pigeons,” a track that originally appeared on WSP’s 1991 self-titled studio set.

For the November 1992 sessions that yielded Everyday, the band again worked with producer Johnny Sandlin, but chose to do all recording sessions in a single studio in the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The album features cover art that – intentionally or not – strongly echoes an obscure psychedelic record from 1968, The C.A. Quintet’s A Trip Thru Hell. John Hermann joined Widespread Panic on keyboards, replacing the departed T Lavitz.

Four of Everyday‘s eleven songs are on this collection. “Hatfield” subtly bends the WSP sound in a commercial direction without compromising the band’s authentic vibe. Dave Schools’ bass solo is a highlight of “Wondering.” The languid “Papa’s Home” has an appealing Allman Brothers Band feel. The hooky and uptempo “Pleas” would become a live concert favorite.

Released in March 1993, Everyday would be Widespread Panic’s first album to score on the charts: the album reached #184 on the Billboard 200, and rose to #10 on the magazine’s Heatseekers chart.

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