While much has been made of Widespread Panic's keyboard player John Hermann releasing his solo albums on the idiosyncratic Fat Possum label, Spreadheads need not worry. There's none of the whacked-out, stripped-down Mississippi juke-joint blues of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough for which the imprint is known. There's also little of the neo-hippie jam rock of his full-time gig. Rather, Hermann and his band, the Smiling Assassins (featuring North Mississippi Allstars' Luther and Cody Dickinson, along with Bloodkin bassist Paul "Crumpy" Edwards), churn out good-timey, earthy rock seasoned with folk, R&B, country and the occasional Allman Brothers-styled boogie.
Defector kicks up some Highway 61-era Dylan dust, especially when Hermann, who generally sticks to guitar, rips into an Al Kooper-inspired organ solo. Hermann's nasal voice, eerily similar to the Bottle Rockets' Brian Henneman, won't win any awards for soul, but he delivers these songs with enthusiasm and the album succeeds at its own modest agenda.
The disappointment is that Hermann didn't go further. This roots music isn't as grimy, dangerous and bloodcurdling as even modest Fat Possum artists and lacks the desperate, nothing-left-to-lose quality of the best blues. Despite good intentions and top-notch players, it's as if Hermann is unwilling to offend his core audience while still attempting to push past Widespread's boundaries.
Far from a failure, Defector rocks and rolls suitably, especially when Luther Dickinson lays into distorted guitar licks on "I'll Get Around to It." But like a city slicker visiting a hog farm, Hermann never gets his hands dirty enough.
JoJo Hermann plays the Variety Playhouse Sat., March 8.