Choice Cuts: The Capricorn Years 1991Ė1999
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2007, Volume 14, #8
Written by John Metzger
Sun August 5, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
These days, Widespread Panic has settled into its role as a bedraggled veteran of the jam band scene. Setting aside its return-to-form on last yearís Earth to America, the Georgian outfit has spent the better part of the past decade searching for direction and trying to hold itself together. Even before the premature death of guitarist Michael Houser, Widespread Panic had been struggling to maintain the consistency that it had enjoyed during its early years. Itís telling, for example, that since the release of 1999ís íTil the Medicine Takes, the ensemble has issued far more live efforts than studio albums, and in a sense, Houserís passing pushed the group off a cliff and forced it to come to grips with its growing identity crisis. There was a time, however, when the band ó along with Phish and Blues Traveler ó provided a fresh, new face for the classic-rock sounds of the late í60s and early í70s, and its best, most defining moments are chronicled by the series of sturdy recordings that it made for the Capricorn label.
Considering that it was 25 years ago when Houser and vocalist John Bell first began collaborating ó and that Space Wrangler, the bandís debut, was issued in 1988 ó a retrospective examination of Widespread Panicís canon has been long overdue. Although it is far from comprehensive, Choice Cuts: The Capricorn Years 1991Ė1999 nicely fills this void, and its attempt to navigate the outfitís first seven albums is nearly successful. The collectionís biggest triumph largely comes from the manner in which it showcases the diversity of the groupís approach. Although southern rock served as its prime motivation ó the works of the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Dixie Dregs filter through nearly every track on the set ó Widespread Panic frequently cast a much wider net. This, in turn, allowed it to find new ways of framing its heroesí influences. During its heyday, it was as adept at crafting singles (Ainít Life Grand) as it was at exploring propulsive R&B (Chilly Water). On Weight of the World, it tapped the Memphis Horns to highlight its love of soul; the saloon-bred swagger of Blue Indian revealed the Doors-ian tendencies that previously had drifted clandestinely through Bellís vocals; and a breezy romp through J.J. Caleís Traveling Light included an ode to Mark Knopfler.
Nevertheless, Choice Cuts: The Capricorn Years 1991Ė1999 isnít without its missteps. In its attempt to waltz in an evenhanded fashion through Widespread Panicís catalogue, it sometimes focuses upon the wrong moments. For example, it includes Love Tractor from the bandís self-titled sophomore set and Blackout Blues from Ainít Life Grand at the expense of drafting either the title track from Space Wrangler or its cover of Hope in a Hopeless World from the underrated Bombs & Butterflies. The bandís performances on the latter tunes are indisputably stronger. Similarly, Widespread Panicís legacy would have been better served if the collection had admitted the groupís imaginative pairing of Robert Johnsonís Me and the Devil Blues with the Talking Headsí Heaven instead of the two solid (but lesser) concert cuts (Pickiní Up the Pieces and Pigeons) from Light Fuse, Get Away. In addition, the chronological sequencing of the endeavor provides a bumpier transition between tracks than was necessary. More often than not, Choice Cuts: The Capricorn Years 1991Ė1999 does accomplish its goals, though Space Wrangler and íTil the Medicine Takes remain more suitably convincing entrees to Widespread Panicís work. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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