You could tell, as the faithful gathered, many had traveled from afar to see their band again. Fifteen minutes before Thursday’s Widespread Panic show, a sparse enthusiastic gathering of hippie-ish fans hugged, squealed, and exchanged intelligence about past concerts in Georgia and future appearances in L.A. and Vegas. “Isn’t it smaller than you imagined?” the travelers kept repeating. And when the show promptly started at 8 p.m., the room miraculously filled with folks who chose to stay standing and dance in the aisles while thick incense rolled up into the false skies of the smaller-than-they-imagined Arlington.
Despite the rush, the band from Athens, Georgia — roughly a cross between The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers — did not immediately soar. They opened with a serviceable version of “Let’s Get Down to Business,” followed by “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind,” two classics from their nearly 30-year-old catalog. Guitarist Jimmy Herring carried the band, which seemed a bit flattened out. But by the third song, a witty, extended cover of Cat Stevens’s “Trouble,” they began granulating unexpected textures and dimensions. The first set ended rather brilliantly with a medley of “Disco,” “Surprise Valley,” and “Pleas,” topped off nicely with a passionate version of “Dyin’ Man.” They took a half-hour break and came back slightly less intense; the second half seemed standard stuff until a four-song mid-set burst that began with a cosmic cover of “Smokestack Lightning” and concluded with “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” The rest was predictably noodle-y, even with a Who-enriched version of “Bowlegged Woman” as encore. The show stretched a little over two hours; maybe half was brilliant.
But that was enough. Like playing golf, you only need one good hit to redeem a crappy day out, and this show was more than enough for the fans who stood, danced, and left redefined. The essence of jam isn’t really all that hard to pinpoint — it’s bands whose reps survive off of live performances. The songs that never become hits serve as hymns to the faithful via superb musicianship. Getting lost in a song is the closest thing most of us get to real transcendence, and plenty got lost last Thursday night.