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Published: 2003/05/28
by Chip Schramm

Ball – Widespread Panic

Sanctuary Records 06076-84604-2

Widespread Panic's eighth studio album is quite different
from those that have preceded it in the Athens,
Georgia band's catalog. While this is not too
surprising, at least in the sense that the previous seven also varied wildly
from each other, it is more significant because this is the first album that
does not include
the late Michael Houser on lead guitar. It's almost
astonishing that less than one full year after the loss
of a founding member, the band could bounce back with
Ball (pun intended), an album that contains 13 new
songs. George McConnell fills in on lead guitar
duties, rejoining keyboard
player John "Jojo" Hermann, a bandmate from the Oxford,
Mississippi-based Beanland that saw its heyday in the
early 1990s. Longtime friend and mentor John Keane
produced the album and fills in on a few tracks as

The first thing that makes this album unique both for
Widespread Panic and most jambands
is that fact that none of the 13 tracks on
the album had yet been performed live. It has become almost ritual for
bands with
a heavy tour schedule to learn new songs on the road,
play-test them during concerts, and have a very good
idea of what they want the finished product to sound
like when they enter the studio. Widespread Panic did
the opposite on Ball and the results are
interesting. Several songs are
extremely short, without any guitar bridge or
extemporaneous jamming at all. The whole album is
undeniably vocal-driven, so even the longer songs are
focused on Bell's talents behind a microphone
rather than the power of the lineup to create
an instrumental opus.

Approaching the album in this way, the band was
clearly looking to establish the current lineup in a
controlled setting, apart from the distractions and
propaganda that are a part of any live tour. Because
the band confined the song rehearsal and arrangement
process to John Keane's studio in Athens, the album is
comparable to the Grateful Dead's Blues For Allah or
Phish's Round Room While there are no 20 minute,
Egyptian-style experiments on Ball, nor did the band
take any true break during this time,
Widespread Panic was clearly in need of a new artistic
method to help them rediscover their individual and
collective creativity. In this sense, they can be
considered successful.

The difficulty of making the
album in the wake of Houser's death is
neither openly paraded nor subconsciously overlooked.
The very first track, "Fishing," sends Bell on a
narrative journey down beneath the surface of the
water as he chases an aquatic muse. "Inspiration
barely lasts a moment," he sings, and the album begins.
The first track features nifty acoustic guitar
interplay, and rippling, echo-filled keyboard lines
from Hermann, reminiscent of "Bear's
Gone Fishin'." "Tortured Artist" also seems to make
self-reflective reference to the struggle to embrace
the future while letting go of the past like "a tired
cowboy who just let his horse run free."

The strongest sequence on the album is the fourth, fifth,
and sixth songs, back to back to back. "Papa Johnny
Road" is a bright blues tune that feature a
slide guitar lead and catchy lyrics. It
seems like the album song most suited to the strengths
of the lineup, and simultaneously true to the sound that
Widespread Panic has established over the past 18
years. The playful chorus, "I've got a
real good mind to beat you senseless," sounds
intangibly attractive.

There are three songs on the last half of the album
that are more typical of band members' solo projects
than they are of Widespread Panic as an ensemble.
"Don't Wanna Lose You" sounds very much like the
slow Mississippi Delta blues that Jojo Hermann sings
on his extracurricular outings. He trades lead vocals with
Bell, building off of one another, singing from
their nearly broken hearts. "Longer Look" sounds
like a song that John Bell would perform as
a solo number. The acoustic guitar picking is fine and
delicate, the phrasing and themes reminiscent of a Scottish folk tune.
Waits" is the only song on the album that has been
performed at any time, at
John Bell solo concerts. With slinky, sexy vocals,
Bell tells a story of a life seen "as a dance of the
seven veils." Hermann complements him nicely with
floating, lilting organ lines, like one might
expect to hear in a lounge down in the French Quarter.

Some of the less accessible songs on the album also
come in the last half. "Meeting of the Waters"
is one of the few songs on the album that doesn't have
strong vocal presence. However, it also happens to be
one of the tightest songs on the album instrumentally. The breakdown near the end is highlighted by some
well-arranged interplay between George McConnell and
Dave Schools. It is one of the few places on
the album where McConnell's lead guitar stands out at
all. Schools gets a few more bass licks in on
"Nebulous," especially in the spacey interlude
that ends the tune. That song features one of the
best delivered lines on the album: "John Wayne lives;
riding off to another sunset." There's something
about John Bell's attitude and gruff tone of voice
that seems to justify allusion to the legendary
cinematic Duke.

These last two tunes seem like they are the ones that
might appeal most to older Widespread Panic fans in
the long run, because of their open-ended structure
and launching pad for long jams. But some of the
shorter, more concentrated vocal tunes should appeal
just as readily to all types of music fans. "Papa
Johnny Road," "Sparks Fly," and "Counting Train Cars,"
seems to satisfy these criteria in blues, rock, and
country genres respectively, giving the band a
broad base to draw from.

Ultimately, Ball rides on the
strength of John Bell's vocals. For many years the
band has shared songwriting credits equally and never
had an official leader. Even so, the defacto leader
of the band has always been Bell. The current lineup
does an excellent job of supporting him, with Ortiz
and Hermann especially stepping up in key places to
complement the vocal drive on the 13
songs. The unique approach to studio recording of
brand new songs never played live might surprise
longtime fans of the band, but the fresh approach to
the material should also make them more accessible to
mainstream music fans that have not been exposed to
their music in the past. This is an album worth
checking out from a band that is still on the move.

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