In its '70s heyday southern rock was huge but hardly monolithic — under its pillars dwelt the guitar swagger of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Dixie Dregs' jazz fusion and Sea Level's literate funk. Then, dealt fatal blows by the passing of crucial Allmans and Skynyrd greats, it crumbled, and the region, led by Athens, Ga., and Chapel Hill, N.C., turned alternative. Now, with the H.O.R.D.E. concerts and a new appetite for mammoth bluesy jamming, there's a revival of Southern-rock spirit. And especially of the pyrotechnics its originators perfected.
A Georgia sextet, Widespread Panic come closest to capturing some of the Allmans' grandeur — fat organ, fluid guitar, dense percussion — but they summon up, too, a tad of the Grateful Dead's laid-back charm. Players so fiery that they don't show off (check the instrumental "Blackout Blues"), they can craft a sweet single ("Ain't Life Grand") and can also do serious damage with the blues ("Junior").
South African expatriate Dave Matthews leads a Virginia quintet whose major-label debut is one of the most ambitious releases of '94. With an arsenal that includes reeds and violin backing Matthews' gorgeous vocals, they've got chops to kill. But it's the complex harmonies and subtle rhythmic shifts of songs like "Satellite" and "The Best of What's Around" that really slay. Almost unclassifiable, the Dave Matthews Band sound like four or five groups in one.
While the Tractors hail from Oklahoma, their sound is bona fide Dixie fried. Remakes of the country hoot "Settin' the Woods on Fire" and Chuck Berry's "Thirty Days" set the down-home tone, and singer-guitarist Steve Ripley's originals are in toe-tapping keeping with that kind of swing. "Tryin' to Get to New Orleans" and "Doreen" are ragged and absolutely right; Ripley's own "The Blue Collar Rock" sums up the Tractors' authentic drive.