You can’t blame these unpretentious rockers for coming from Athens, Georgia — R.E.M. doesn’t hold the only license to export music from the college town it put on the rock’n’roll map. But it’s hard to resist the irrational tug of resentment that Widespread Panic evinces no interest whatsoever in identifying with their superstar homies. Instead, the trio-turned-sextet tools along its own unchallenging rocky road, steering clear of moronic boogie and ironic pop (while rocking hard enough to at least imply the former) and upholding a modernized sense of the clarity and drive that made the Allman Brothers more than a simple jam band and Little Feat more than a groove party. If Widespread Panic’s music is perfectly ordinary, at least the band seems proud of it.
Space Wrangler is a polite debut that takes few risks in showcasing the basic assets of a young but already confident combo: guitarist John Bell’s easygoing vocals, the rhythm section’s creative energy, keyboard accents and upbeat songwriting that doesn’t neglect melody for instrumental precision. The reissue adds three subsequent studio cuts. Widespread Panic is better — bluesier, rockier, funkier, countrier. But diverse skill can’t turn this uninspired blue plate special into a pungent meal; bulky rather than satisfying, it hasn’t got much flavor but probably travels well. (Cool scene footnote: a song named for Athens’ Love Tractor.)
Everyday is the first Widespread Panic album that actually leaves a mark: Bell’s voice, grown husky and expressive, lends the sturdy songs a measure of urgency they previously lacked. Having thus located a workable stylistic center, Widespread Panic spun itself in a number of different directions on Ain’t Life Grand, produced, like the first album, by John Keane. “Little Kin” loads up a ZZ Top shotgun and fires off a bolt of buzzing rock, while “Airplane” is a gentle semi-acoustic harmony reverie. “Blackout Blues” recalls an old Allmans blues extravaganza; “Raise the Roof” finds a sultry hypnotic groove. And although the chorus comes straight from the Bon Jovi cliché book, “Heroes” musters a milder version of Pearl Jam’s taut emotional ambience. Growing up in public is never a pretty sight, but Widespread Panic’s fourth album almost makes the experience seem worthwhile.