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Published: 2005/03/05

Live at Myrtle Beach – Widespread Panic

Sanctuary Records

For all of those hankering for a Panic fix they can't wait one more month to satiate, the band is currently offering Live At Myrtle Beach, the latest in what has been an active period of releases. Since Widespread Panic began its well-deserved vacation, Sanctuary has taken it upon itself to dissect every aspect of the band’s live identity, offering acoustic shows, more joyous occasions with frequent co-conspirators The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and a much less essential collection of covers. Save for the appearance of one guest and a few well-chosen interpretations, there’s no special twist to this last hiatus period installment, save for its stripped down portraiture of the band’s stellar play, which makes it by far the most worthwhile of them all.

Endowed with a fluid improvisational sensibility tempered into directness by its straight ahead rock subconscious, the Athens juggernaut has traded in the volatile, protean mutations of many of its sonic brethren for a dense, textured approach in which lazy, spacious tempos drift into breakneck jams with the same seamless ease that John Bell channels his warm Southern growl into intimacy or irreverence. Culled from the most compelling period of their last tour, this album finds that dynamic clicking on all cylinders, highlighted by Bell's heartfelt, deliberately tattered vocals, Dave School's teeth-rattling basslines, Hermann's drunken Bayou keys and screaming Wurlitzer, and the band's deft rhythmic embroidery. An epic 23 minute "Papa's Home" manages to cover that entire spectrum, including impressive bass and percussion vamps from Schools and Domingo Ortiz.

More significantly, Live at Myrtle Beach provides an arresting view of George McConnell truly coming into his own as lead guitarist, framing his comfort and self-assurance in inhabiting an uninhabitable void. McConnell has managed to assimilate the ethos of Mikey Houser’s sound while maintaining a stylistic identity as powerful as the torrid solos he lays down throughout the show and as distinct and endearing as his cheeky Southern drawl. In many ways, his mercurial play forms the soul of both discs.

Although the band nails all the staples (blistering takes on "Action Man," "Chilly Water," and "Ain't Life Grand"), it's the previously (officially) unreleased material that takes centerstage. Slide guitar whiz John Keane offers his services for the arrogant twelve-bar swagger of Robert Johnson's "Stop Breakin' Down," decorated by his laid back sparrings with McConnell and infused with enough good time love to make a dead man… well, I'll let George tell you should you decide to ante up. South Park fanatics will be pleased to hear that Bell even offers up his vaunted Cartman impression in introducing Keane, who also mixed the album.

"Postcard," juxtaposing a Cream-like motif against more loping spacious breaks, as well as "Conrad the Caterpillar" are worthy instrumental voyages which also serve well in evoking the strange bucolic grace of Bell's songwriting. A pummeling take on the long-standing Hot Tuna cover "Bowlegged Woman" melts into a hypnotic funked out jam anchored by Jo Jo's sqwawking keys and a vintage J.B. vocal rant which moves from a Barry White come-on to more abstract postulations. Whether because or despite of the tragedy it has been made to endure, few bands exude the genuine onstage joy and humility that Widespread Panic effortlessly projects, and the sense of purpose and direction it implemented in transcending that tragedy is perpetually recognizable in the command it maintains over its own sound. If you aren't already eagerly anticipating their return to the road in late March, this album just might do the trick.

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