The last several years have seen many changes for Widespread Panic. Since 2002, the band has witnessed the tragic death, due to cancer, of lead guitarist Michael Houser, the entrance and exit of Houser's replacement George McConnell, and now the arrival of guitarist Jimmy Herring. Herring, who has played with several bands among the Panic posse, brings a clean, spunky, virtuosic guitar style to the band. The group's resulting sound on Free Somehow revives elements of their long-lost past, addresses the present and even looks toward future possibilities.
Primary vocalist John Bell dominates the microphone on Free Somehow. Contrary to some of Panic's previous practices, other band members rarely take the microphone. The album is, however, adorned with extra instruments, including horns, harmonica and violin to name a few. Some background vocals are scattered throughout, too. Free Somehow continues some of the progressive and jam-band mentality from before, and blends it with a thick, textured rock sound blistering with Herring's complements. The album also unleashes a funkier quality that seemed lost in the last few studio records.
Certainly one of the more remarkable aspects of Widespread Panic's music is the presence of the second full-time percussionist, Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, whose varied instruments add an extra dimension to the band's sound. Unfortunately, though, Ortiz's vibrant contributions to the album are often either veiled, or at least not fully exploited by the other five band members, thus silencing a part of the unique sound. Panic's percussive depth is more evident live, where they display their instrumentation more extensively, regaining parts of their jam-band roots. Widespread Panic is now also releasing Live from Carbondale, recorded in 2002, which is sure to be loaded with classic Panic material.
With the release of Free Somehow, it could be suggested that Widespread Panic is embarking on a new era of their music. The personnel and attitude change in the band may prove to be a source for many more years of music. Either way, it's been a remarkable journey for the band, whose conception by a few students at the University of Georgia has led to a plethora of music- making for well more than 20 years.