For their latest, the masters of improv draw upon comedy and tragedy alike

Widespread Panic frontman John Bell sees a sharp distinction between being a so-called “jam band” and being a band that’s adept at improvisation. “It’s the difference between playing while you’re asleep and playing while you’re awake,” he says. “To apply yourself properly to improvisation, you need to have an awareness of the other players and know what they’re doing with their instruments. There’s an intensity in it that really wakes you up.”

Bell should know. Over the last 24 years, he and his bandmates have established themselves as one of America’s premier improvising live acts. The Athens, Ga.-based group’s shows have become so legendary, in fact, that people sometimes forget that along with the spectacular musicianship comes a trove of great songs—including those on the band’s latest album, Dirty Side Down. Rife with celestial, guitar-centric jazz-rock, organ-laced boogie shuffles and shimmering balladry, the disc brings to mind everything from vintage Santana to the astral-blues offerings of the Allman Brothers Band.

“For this album, we concentrated on finishing one song at a time,” says Bell. “Every tune was recorded live, with all of us in the room. We did multiple takes, and what’s cool about that is you get new ideas through that process. Someone gets inspired to mess with the tempo, or the arrangement, or just the feel of certain things.”

While the bulk of Dirty Side Down consists of Panic originals, one standout track is a cover of a never-before-released song written by Vic Chesnutt, “This Cruel Thing.” The acclaimed Athens singer and songwriter died just days before the group began recording.

“Listening to Vic’s songs is like hearing a great comedian, someone who’s not just spewing jokes but who’s saying things with substance,” Bell says. “He got into heavy stuff, but he also kept things light on the surface.” In fact, while Bell’s major influences include Motown, Van Morrison, Neil Young and Jeff Buckley, comedy albums by George Carlin and the Firesign Theatre fueled his ideas about lyrical wordplay.

Bell is quick to point out, however, that Widespread Panic’s music reflects the sum total of each band member’s tastes and experiences. Adhering to that philosophy has been key to the group’s longevity. “It’s important to remember that there are six of you, and that making music as six people is more fun than being on your own,” he says. “It’s a team sport.”

–Russell Hall

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