A few years ago, sitting in my room with some friends late one night, I listened to the Allman Brothers’ Live at the Fillmore East for the first time. I remember swearing that the 15-minute version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” from that 1971 concert was the greatest thing I had ever heard. Expecting every jamband to replicate the orgasmic highs of that famous tune is pretty asinine — even though the many bands like Widespread Panic or the recently reformed Dead (sans Jerry Garcia, that is) consciously try to channel the Woodstock spirit. That certainly is more good than bad: seeing a great jamband is unlike anything else, thanks not only to the plethora of great acts from Medeski, Martin and Wood to Bela Fleck, but also because of the fun crowds. In any case, every genre of music has its granddaddies that haunt current artists. More unique to jambands — and this review — is the problem that plagues Widespread Panic’s new album, Ball, and hundreds more just like it: the difficulty of breathing the energy of live concerts into studio recordings.
The Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach, the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Phish’s A Picture of Nectar are some of only a handful great studio records made by jambands. I know a girl who has followed the String Cheese Incident around for two years and she doesn’t own a single album by them — except, that is, for their live Carnival ’99, best known for a nasty version of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Jamband studio recordings aren’t usually stellar, and Ball is no exception.
Although Widespread Panic sounds tight throughout the record (they’ve been together for almost two decades), the acoustic “Longer Look” is the only song that boasts good songwriting. Worse, the only interesting jam comes on “Nebulous,” the only tune on the album over six minutes long. Not only are the slower songs not very chill, but the faster ones aren’t energetic (or at least not long enough for the energy to build). Most of them are quite indistinguishable from each other, and feature achingly average solos. In fact, the entire album, for better or worse, sounds devoid of improvisation.
That the uninspired record — four-fifths of which sounds like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers B-sides — fails to reach the highs of Panic’s live shows, however, isn’t so surprising. If you know and love the blistering jams of Widespread Panic’s concerts, you know there’s little chance of replicating that sound in a studio.