Pickin’ on Widespread Panic – various artists

CMH Records 8601

In the beginning there was "Pickin' on the Beatles". Then came "Pickin' on
the Grateful Dead". Springsteen, Dylan, Eagles, Santana, I'll buy it.
Several years later and we now have "Pickin' on Shania Twain", "Pickin' on
the Doobie Brothers", "Pickin' on Sheryl Crow", and a crop of other
undeserving bands. The CMH label is making "Pickin' on…" bluegrass
tribute albums like pancakes. The latest in the series features the music
of Widespread Panic in "Pickin' on Widespread Panic: a Bluegrass Tribute".

I'll warn you in advance: I'm not a fan of Widespread Panic. I do not
know how the bluegrass versions match up to their counterparts. However, if
the album claims to be a bluegrass album, there are two things that it
should contain nonetheless: solid picking and high lonesome vocals. Since
the album contains all instrumentals, it is exempt from the latter, but the
album actually does contain some incredible bluegrass musicianship.

The album's twelve songs are performed by three different bands: the Farm
Hand Slam Band, Rollin' in the Hay, and the Usual Suspects; each band
performs four songs.

The Farm Hand Slam Band's portion of the album provides some very
progressive picking, complete with drums/percussion, two guitars, and all
the bluegrass instruments. On the first cut, a cover of J.J. Cale's
Travelin’ Light, the band achieves a Newgrass Revival sound.
the most jamming tune of the album, it kicks off with a guitar intro, then a
good rhythm forms and the each musician takes some extended solos. Six
minutes later a beautiful guitar run finishes the tune off. It's a shame
that the rest of the album cannot really maintain the same energy as
Travelin’ Light.

With the exception of the final song – Walkin' (For Your
Love) by the Usual Suspects, all the songs are missing something. The
arrangements try to compensate for the lack of vocals, but too often the
instruments fill the song with unnecessary notes that interrupt the flow of
the melody and make a lot of the album hard to listen to straight through.
After a while all the songs start to blend in with each other until the
start and stop of the each song is indiscernible from the next. Another
disappointment is the synthesizer in Surprise Valley, which deters
listener from the otherwise good interplay between the rest of the
instruments. Driving Song begins with some rather obnoxious
fiddling, but
is saved by the entrance of the banjo and mandolin midway to get the song
hopping in the right direction.

If the Farm Hand String Band's songs represented the newgrass sounds, the
Usual Suspects provide the traditional bluegrass sound (but still a far cry
from the Stanley Brothers). As stated before, Walkin' (For Your
Love) is
a kicking tune that I would actually expect to hear performed by a bluegrass
band. The driving melodic banjo playing mixes wonderfully with the almost
Sam Bush-like mandolin. Coconut has a jazzy mandolin intro, but soon
falls into the trap of repetitiveness. Driving Song starts off
but is brought to life with some exciting banjo and fiddle scales.

The third group, Rollin' in the Hay, is the largest culprit contributing to
the monotony found throughout the album. The Take Out,
Wondering, The Waker, and Porch Song all contain
roughly the same rhythm and feel. I'm
usually quicker to push skip on the CD player than to pick up my mandolin
and strum along.

Although there are some great moments on Pickin’ on Widespread Panic,
is brought down by far too many dull moments. The arrangements appear to be
literal translations of the actual Panic versions, and the repetition of
themes and instrument solos get boring after the fourth minute. It probably
works in a rock setting, but not for a bluegrass song. Lack of vocals to
hold the songs together and heavy repetition of solos are sure to make any
listener's attention wane. Spreadheads are sure to like this one, though it
may be too esoteric for Joe Q. Bluegrassfan. I'll be worried when I see
"Pickin' on Britney Spears".