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Published: 2004/12/01
by Brad Farberman

Jackassolantern – Widespread Panic

Sanctuary Records 06076-84716-2

In attempts to console their sizable fanbase, road warriors Widespread Panic released three live albums in 2004, their year off (Athens, Georgia's finest last took the stage on December 31st, 2003, in Atlanta; their self-imposed exile is set to conclude in 2005). Night of Joy, a collaboration with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Uber Cobra, an acoustic effort, were culled from an impressive two-night stand last year at the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; they should tide over Panic fans jonesin’ for a fix. But Jackassolantern, the group’s third and final release for the year, is something more than your standard live release; this bad boy is a real treat.

As its name implies, each of Jackassolantern’s nine cuts, all cover songs, were pulled from Halloween performances over the years. The tracks run the gamut of styles, from Motown to hip-hop (and, of course, rock).

Unfortunately, the tunes included here also run the gamut of success. The album is divided by lineup, as well: six of the songs here were recorded before 2002, and feature the late Michael Houser on guitar; the remaining three tunes were recorded in 2002 at the University of New Orleans, with newcomer George McConnell in lieu of Houser.

And, as one might have guessed, the tracks with Houser are a lot stronger. However, that has less to do with musicianship than song selection. Panic has no business kicking out tunes like James Brown's immortal "Sex Machine" or War's "Slippin' Into Darkness"; lead singer John Bell, in particular, lacks the range to do these songs justice (Nelly's "Hot In Herre," too, is more irritating than it is fun).

Panic just aren't the Funk Brothers, or the JBs (and they're certainly not a hip-hop group). They're a straight-shootin' rock band, and they shouldn't be covering War or, despite some pretty Houserisms, a ballad like "The Wind Cries Mary."

These guys have a lot more in common with Skynyrd, or the Stones, which is why "Sympathy For The Devil" comes off so well. Dave Schools' monstrously solid bass lines bounce off Todd Nance's drums and Domingo S. Ortiz's subtle percussion in a really raw way and, with Bell's vocals and Houser's explosive guitar at the helm, Panic glides through this classic like it was 1968.

Sabbath's "Sweet Leaf," a timeless ode to the stinky green, works in much the same way. Bell's catscratch delivery blows over Houser's sinister guitar crunch and Nance's abusive beat, and lands in your face (Ozzy would be proud).

The album closes with a great take on Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla," a tune that Panic should rock more often. After all, the title kind of suits the band: as long as they stay away from Nelly's songbook, they're large and in charge.

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