When I reviewed Free Somehow, Widespread Panic’s tenth album, I received a good bit of mail from fans who were angry I liked the album. These comma-heavy hyperventilations asserted I had no right to enjoy the music because I was not a true fan. Well, I’m still not a true fan, or even a fan, but I will once again make the daring claim that I enjoy listening to Dirty Side Down, the Athens, Georgia group’s 11th studio album. In support of my outrageous claim, I offer some details of some of the songs collected on Dirty Side.
Most memorable on first and repeated listens is “This Cruel Thing.” It turned my ear and vivified my soul even before I knew it was written by the late Vic Chesnutt. Slow and gentle and morbid, the song builds to what would be the album’s peak with a vocal assist to John Bell by Athens local Anne Richmond Boston.
This would be the album’s peak if Widespread Panic were not a jamband. But in a move that will surely turn your favorite hipster’s stomach into a perfect Windsor, Panic takes three tracks to reach full culmination on Dirty Side. They begin with “Clinic Cynic,” slide in full Grateful Dead mode into the blithe instrumental “St. Louis,” and finish off with the superstruct “Shut Up & Drive.”
If that’s not enough to hem your haw, listening to Dirty Side these 10 or 12 times in three days has been the pinnacle of my Panic experience, and that includes seeing them in Amsterdam in 1999. Jimmy Herring’s guitar on Dirty Side, especially when channeling Jerry Garcia, combined with John Bell’s spot on vocals and adroit lyrics, commingled with a more prominent role taken by keyboardist John Hermann, truly makes this a delightful bit of recorded music.