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Published: 2004/08/27
by Mike Greenhaus

Uber Cobra – Widespread Panic

Sanctuary Records

Widespread Panic has built even its most layered jams upon a firm song-oriented bedrock. So it makes sense that after stripping away the electric touches which traditionally characterize the sextet's live show, listeners are left with a series of well-crafted, gentle, classic rock nuggets, so elegantly showcased on the lovely Uber Cobra. One of jam-rock’s most popular acts, Widespread Panic has packed arenas across the country, filling such lofty surroundings with a series of loaded, action-packed solos.

Utilizing Dave Schools' rock solid bass lines as a lead weapon in its three-pronged frontline, Widespread Panic's sound has often been described as busy, with gentle musings from the late Michael Houser and keyboardist Jo Jo Herman leaking through a bawdy wall of sound. In fact, since joining Widespread Panic, new recruit George McConnell has helped further the sextet's transition into a stadium-ready unit, with his flashy licks combating Schools' bass headfirst, instead of sublimely shaving away his solos. Yet, despite this band's ballooning popularity and shifting sounds, Widespread Panic has remained intensely loyal to its songs, cultivating a core of self-penned narratives and choice covers. Distilling each cut to its emotional core, Southern rock's most prominent jamband explores a new series of textures on Uber Cobra, offering a live document as cohesive as its studio work and as three-dimensional as its live set.

Culled from the same three-night Myrtle Beach run which yielded Widespread Panic's previous live effort, Night of Joy, Uber Cobra highlights each evening’s opening acoustic set. While less obviously celebratory, Uber Cobra encompasses an element of grace and accomplishment: a testament to two decades of hard living both on and off the road. With Widespread Panic’s 2004 "vacation" ominously looming as the tapes for this disc rolled, Uber Cobra is a mature statement from a rock band reflecting upon its soon-to-be-fermenting legacy.

If Night of Joy focused on Widespread Panic’s funky, rock-and-roll underbelly, bolstering several tracks with the Dirty Dozen Horns, Uber Cobra emphasizes the often-understated vocal musings of John Bell, the sextet’s long overshadowed lead singer. Though Bell’s rhythm work and roller coaster vocal rants haven’t always blended smoothly with Widespread Panic’s jams, on Uber Cobra the bearded frontman uses his voice as a lead instrument, explaining his band’s emotions as gracefully as McConnell’s solos. Like Warren Haynes, Bell has the uncanny ability to find a grainy passion in his lyrics, bringing the weight of blues-rock into a decisively modern context. In a stripped down form, live staples like "Papa Johnny Road" and "Can’t Get High" are throwbacks to rock ‘n’ roll’s 1970s peak — an era which matched extensive soloing with equally verbose wordplay.

Like its predecessor, Uber Cobra also dots its sets with a series of intriguing covers. Approaching the Talking Heads’ "City of Dreams" with a worldly understanding, Widespread Panic deliver a near definitive version of David Byrne’s tune. Filtering the art rocker’s manic speed through years of weathered observations. Bell’s textured readings also shine on Willis Alan Ramsey’s "Geraldine & the Honey Bee’s," a fine example of the vocalist’s ability to tame his pitch and tone into a valuable vocal instrument. Alas, like Haynes, though a testament to his impassioned singing, Bell’s stark readings do show the occasional limit to his vocal range, particularly in placing the Byrne and Ramsey a bit too close together. Perhaps most fitting, Panic also nods to proto-jamband Blind Faith with a variation on "Can’t Find My Way Home"" a track whose lyrics seem compatible with Panic’s own text reflections:

"But I'm near the end and

I just ain't got the time

And I'm wasted and

I can't find my way home."

While Uber Cobra comes complete with the unplugged, open emotions of MTV’s seminal program, the single disc set is not entirely acoustic. Throughout, Herman makes liberal use of his electric organ, lacing each track with an organic gospel spirit. Shining particularly bright on "Walk On" and "Party at Your Mama’s House," Herman helps flesh out this disc’s stripped feel, instead of extending each track into truly spacey structures. In fact, with each track clocking in at approximately six minutes or less, Uber Cobra reins in any jamband’s tendency to meander, without diminishing any note’s punch.

Perhaps better suited for another time, Widespread Panic emphasizes words more prominently than almost any of their peers. Managing to craft conventional rock tales without creating overtly commercial music, Widespread Panic often buried Bell's lyrical beauty behind a wall of guitars. Yet, in this stripped down setting, Georgia's sextet proves the old adage true: speak softly and carry a big stick.

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