For a jam band that has made its name improvising onstage, never playing the same set twice, recording a studio album can come with some challenges. For Widespread Panic, which has for years allowed fans to record live shows, it gets even more complicated. The songs fans hear on a studio album are very different from the live versions.
In the past, the band has "road tested" new material during shows, then gone into the studio with a nearly finished product that just needed to be recorded. With "Dirty Side Down," their latest studio work, they did just the opposite, according to bass player Dave School.
"The studio is a laboratory," he said. "More recently we've relished the chance to put things together in the studio. It's a place to try different things."
School said the band is very much concerned about the studio vs. live dilemma, though he believes fans have grown accustomed to how the band works.
"Like anything, there was another side to the coin," he said. "Improvisation is what we do. How do you take a nine-minute beast done live into the studio, and what will fans think who have tapes of the nine-minute beast?
"As (guitarist/singer) John Bell has said, 'Albums are a snapshot of where we were at the time.' Recorded albums are one thing, and the live performances are something else."
School believes if the band tried to reproduce studio albums note for note onstage, fans would turn against them.
"It would be the death knell for us," he said.
Album sales, while important, are not where the band makes its money anyway. They've released 19 albums and sold more than 3 million copies. On the other hand, they hold attendance records all across the country, including 32 sold-out shows at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado and 17 full houses at Phipps Arena in Atlanta.
Something else Widespread fans have come to expect is the unexpected. They will find that in "Dirty Side Down." The album has everything from metal to country influences, and School said that is nothing new for the band.
"It's always been that way. Go all the way back to 'Space Wrangler (1988).' That may have gotten us into trouble with the labels early on. Eclecticism isn't necessarily a selling point, but it's who we are, and it has worked out pretty well for us because we are all happy."
If You Go
* What: Widespread Panic.
* When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
* Where: Memorial Auditorium, 399 McCallie Ave.
* Admission: $38.
* Phone: 642-TIXS.
* Note: Fans are asked to bring a canned-food item to donate to the Chattanooga Area Food Bank.
Widespread Panic is, from left, Dave Schools, Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, Todd Nance, John Bell, Jimmy Herring and John Herman.
Widespread Panic traces its roots back to 1981 in Athens, Ga., when John Bell started playing music with Hixson High School graduate Michael Houser. They officially became Widespread Panic when Houser asked old friend and Chattanooga Central graduate Todd Nance to join them for a charity event. Houser died from pancreatic cancer in 2002.