Widespread moves on with 'Ball'
Losing a member of a band is never easy. For Southern jam-rockers Widespread Panic, the death of guitarist Michael Houser in 2002 was devastating. Not only was Houser a founding member of the band, he was the driving force behind Panic, that being his nickname.
But Widespread Panic persevered, releasing their eighth studio album, "Ball," last month. The album marks a break with tradition for the band, since they did not debut the songs on stage before making the album. What is the same is the album's producer and long-time Widespread collaborator, John Keane, who plays pedal steel guitar on some of the album's cuts.
John Bell's vocals are, as usual, eerie, harmonious and powerful at the same time. Complemented by Garcia-inspired guitar work, his delivery on the acoustic ballad "Longer Look" is simply beautiful.
Do not mistake "Ball" for a soft collection of love songs. The album is a mixture of proud Southern rock ("Thin Air" and "Travelin' Man"), dark anthems of disillusionment ("Monstrosity" and "Tortured Artist") and free-wheeling tales of the tracks ("Counting Train Cars" and "Sparks Fly").
The loss of Houser is noticeable, but it is not detrimental to the group's sound. George McConnell really finds his groove on the album, playing harmoniously with the other band members on tunes like "Thin Air" and the otherwise cheesy "Don't Wanna Lose You." McConnell's guitar work is complemented by JoJo Her-mann's fast-paced, swirling Hammond B-3 organ on "Fishing," the first song on "Ball."
The lyrical content of the album at times leaves something to be desired. Some songs are extremely powerful in their words, such as "Counting Train Cars." Many of the songs, however, are marred by clichd lyrics, like "Meeting of the Waters:" "Leave home your attitude/Don't forget to write/Some things are better left unsaid."
"Ball" does have a few songs that are true classics due to their lyrics and McConnell's rhythmic guitar work. "Time Waits" is a dark, loungy song highlighted by Hermann's floating keys. The song examines the state of modern America: "Oh, make-believe is all we have some of these days/Tie your money to your dog if you fear you might lose your way."
There is also a feeling of restraint on the album, a sense of the songs wanting to break free of the constraints imposed by the studio. This has mainly to do with the nature of the band. Widespread Panic is not a studio band; they are a live band.
There were many critics who doubted Widespread Panic would be able to recover from Houser's death. Some said they would take a hiatus others believed they would call it quits altogether. But it is clear from "Ball" that this freight train shows no signs of stopping in the near future.