Rhythm Oil – Barbara CueJust Ain’t Right – John Hermann
A year into Widespread Panic's first extended hiatus, it seems appropriate to issue a progress report on the group's temporary break. First off, Widespread Panic has used their time off the road to flesh out their official catalogue, with three crisp, carefully tweaked live sets already on the shelves. Second, the group's three most active members, bassist Dave Schools, drummer Todd Nance, and keyboardist Hermann, have no intention of using their side projects to mimic Widespread Panic's patented sound. Yet, on the whole, each player's work has also played tribute both to Widespread Panic's Southern lineage and the group's history of concise, well-crafted compositions. So it's not surprising that the Panic family's most recent pair of releases, Hermann's Just Ain’t Right and Barbara Cue’s Rhythm Oil are both fully realized studio documents, blending rock and roll and Southern blues into a series of flexible compositions. And, while both discs will help fill the void left by Panic’s absence, neither release sound likes cheap Panic leftovers.
Widespread Panic's beloved, but perhaps somewhat overlooked, secret weapon, Hermann has spent the past decade incorporating both his keyboard skills and vocal stylings into the Georgia sextet's sound. Though credited as a solo release, Just Ain’t Right, Hermann’s third official offering, is rooted in the keyboardist’s longtime side project, the Smiling Assassins. Featuring Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, bassist Paul "Crumpy" Edwards, as well as special guests like Chuck Leavell, Just Ain’t Right explores Hermann’s blues-rock leanings. While Hermann often laces his Panic compositions with New Orleans soul and tight funk, Just Ain’t Right is stripped down and somewhat swampy, with the NMAS’s sound creeping in on numbers like "The Vultures Here are a Little Slow."
Allowing Luther Dickinson, in particular, ample room to solo, Hermann surprisingly suppresses his keyboards on much of Just Ain’t Right, instead choosing to highlight his vocal stylings. A bold move considering this is his hiatus solo bow, Hermann’s decision fleshes out this disc’s overall sound, allowing songs like "Lonely Child" to fit in Widespread Panic’s repertoire. At times a bit repetitive, especially by the disc’s second half, Hermann’s songs are fully realized compositions, full of tight vocal layerings and quick keyboard and guitar breakdowns. An enjoyable early pairing, "Here Lies Joseline" is driven by a bedrock of guitar and bass, including an epic lingering solo courtesy of Luther, while "We’re Goin Out Tonight" is a twangy, country-rock cut, which fashions the same players in a more relax context. A high-energy organ jam, "Assassination," is loaded with high-energy solos, including the album’s best jam-funk breakdown. Yet, even this track fades into the slow, sturdy guitar lines of "Voice of Treason." And, while Hermann keeps his energy high throughout this disc, he also begins to all into a somewhat predictable pattern by Just Ain’t Right’s conclusion. The muffled vocals of "Wishbone Man" and the Leavell-enhanced "The Invisible Woman," are both late-blossoming highlights, but Hermann’s songs still seem to work better as choice moments placed among other musicians’ work.
By contrast, Rhythm Oil, the third album by Nance’s longtime second band Barbara Cue, is a surprisingly high-energy studio document, which flows steadily through ten choice cuts. Admittedly a bit more straightforward than the group’s weathered live show, Rhythm Oil is crisp, catchy rock and roll. An Athens, Georgia super group, Barbara Cue features, along with Nance, former Drive By Trucker John Neff on pedal steel and guitar, Bloodkin’s "Crumpy" Edwards (Blookin and yes, Smiling Assasins) on bass and guitar, Six String Drag’s William Tonks on guitar, dobro and lead vocals, and Me’an Mills Jon Millis on bass and guitar. Once described as an excuse to play NRBQ covers, Barbara Cue still offer pumped up, stripped down rock songs, allowing a cross-section of weathered musicians to play in a more relaxed context.
Not a side project per se, Barbara Cue has two obvious ties to Widespread Panic's sound. First, the album's Athens roots are apparent from the start, as "Explore" slowly builds into a friendly guitar duel. Second, Nance's steady drumming keeps Barbara Cue rooted in rock-and-roll, while still allowing room for well-massaged solos and steel pedal workouts. As the story goes, Barbara Cue was conceived around the keg and the group's informal, party atmosphere does creep through raw numbers like "Everywhere." Yet, in general, Rhythm Oil is a moody, serious effort, featuring a canon's worth of choice cuts. "Walls" is a surprisingly tender offering, while "Talking to Myself" reflects on loneliness and rejection. Though a true supergroup, Barbara Cue work as a team, with members switching between instruments and lead vocals, and sharing songwriting credits. A testament to Barbara Cue's versatile nature, "New Nam" sounds as inviting and friendly as an old Hootie and the Blowfish anthem, while the album's climax, "Do You Read Me" is a rock based around swirling guitars and bouncy bass.
Thus, though neither Rhythm Oil or Just Ain’t Right contain as memorable melodies as Panic’s classic output, both releases are cohesive, stylistic experiments. While Dave Schools has emerged as the hiatus’s most prolific and popular player, both Nance and Hermann continue to work at both their instrumental skills and songwriting chops during their time "off" the road. While both artist’s offerings will also likely exist in their own canon, both Hermann and Nance have proven that Widespread Panic’s sound is full of fractured genres, ready to be explored in a neighboring context.