The new series of officially released recordings from the PBS TV program Austin City Limits are wonderful and even useful. Issuing key performances on CD/DVD -- as well as deluxe 180-gram vinyl pressings -- these new albums from New West Records serve two distinct audiences. Hardcore fans will no doubt rejoice that their favorite artists are getting the hero treatment on these collections. But also, these releases can hold appeal for the rest of us, people who may be curious about certain bands they may have only "heard of" from friends, but never really "heard" before or simply never had a chance to connect with for whatever reason.
Sometimes its hard to know where to start when exploring an artists' back catalog and quite a number of musicians are at their best in a live setting. Austin City Limits is known for pulling out great performances from artists gracing their stage -- heck, I became a fan of Los Lobos after seeing them on the show back in the late 1980s. So while I was thrilled to recently review a one of these sets featuring one of my favorite rock bands, Guided By Voices (click here to read that), I've been equally eager to test new waters with artists I'm less familiar with, two of which the good folks at New West Records also sent me for review consideration.
Here's my take on them:
Perhaps unfortunately lumped into the catch-all (and sometimes negatively tinged) category of "jam bands," Widespread Panic began catching my ear in the past as one of the better of the next generation improvisation-ally adept rock bands to come up the ranks -- I have several of their CDs and I think even one of their surround sound releases. Winning someone like me over is no small task for a band like this, especially in the wake of disappearing acts like The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band and Marshall Tucker Band -- all of which I was a fan.
Listening with fresh 21st century ears, I'm certainly hearing more than "just" a bunch of stoners noodling around for hours (note: this is a common misperception of all jam bands from many a music snob). No, Widespread Panic has a lot going on there -- one part Lynyrd Skynyrd, one part Pearl Jam (yes, I can hear Eddie Vedder singing "Casa Del Grillo"), one part Hot Tuna, one part .... The Kinks! ... Widespread Panic arguably have a great blend of chops and songwriting skill that have kept them building a strong fan base globally since the 1990s.
"But... wait... The Kinks?" you say. "Really?"
Yes. Check out "Blue Indian" on side two of the lovely 180-gram two LP set and you'll hear echoes of head Kink Ray Davies' rootsy bluesy vaudeville homages to his past (think "Dead End Street," "Sunny Afternoon," "Alcohol"). This is more than a game of connect the dots folks, its about musical continuum and influence. And clearly, Widespread Panic have quite a bit of depth behind their jams -- an informed musicality that has helped groups like Los Lobos and The Mavericks stand out from their peers. This is a good band and this is a fine performance, spread across four LP sides of two discs. Check 'em out if you haven't thus far...
When Eric came out in the mid 80s, I admit I overlooked him for many reasons -- mostly my ignorance or even a sort of veiled snobbery, writing him off alongside some other next-generation bluesy guitar slingers like one Stevie Ray Vaughan. Yeah yeah, I know.. I have been guilty of musical misjudgment akin to those folks I mentioned above who slag all "jam bands" because they've been categorized as such. So, yes, Stevie Ray was great and I've since gone back to check out his albums (I even reviewed one!).
It has thus been enlightening to go back and hear what I was missing with Eric Johnson's music via this fine Austin City Limits performance. Yes he can certainly do his Hendrix thing -- he more or less bookends the show with Jimi's "Love or Confusion" and "Are You Experienced?" here. The guy clearly has chops and -- perhaps most interesting for me -- a wide blend of influences which, of course, combine to create something new and fresh. I hear echoes of fusion-era Jeff Beck by way of the Bakersfield sound (Buck Owens). Toss in some of Clarence White era Byrds, and of course other Texas legends such as Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (check out "Steve's Boogie" for an idea of what I'm talking about) for good measure. But even then, Johnson will switch things up with a sound that is more akin to Allan Holdsworth and Pat Metheny! Its pretty cool. And again, I'm getting turned on to all this from one live performance, so I imagine there are many more riches to explore in his catalog.
The 180-gram pressings of all the Live From Austin City Limits series vinyl have been consistently quiet and well centered -- clearly, some care went into making these records which come in nice plastic lined inner sleeves.
So, there you have it. Widespread Panic and Eric Johnson are two acts I might have overlooked had it not been for Austin City Limits -- a program once again, turning me onto to some great musicians and great music. If you want to check out these albums, you'll find links to them up on Amazon in the sub-headers above. Unfortunately, they are not up on Tidal as of yet. However, you'll find links to various YouTube clips of these artists and other related information I've embedded here in the review (live links above) for your convenience, Dear Readers. Enjoy!