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A calm night at Artpark for Widespread Panic’s groovy jams

Kicking off the popular Tuesdays in the Park concert series at Artpark on Tuesday night was Widespread Panic, jam band extraordinaire based in Athens, Ga. The band had a vastly different experience, as did its fans, than the show that happened at the very same venue almost exactly one year ago.

On June 18 of last year, Widespread Panic began its set (sans opening act, same as Tuesday night) but had to, after its mid-gig break, call off the rest of the show because of a raging thunderstorm that rocked the amphitheater. This reviewer hunkered down in the sound tent hoping for a second set: everyone in the tent helped to hold down the flaps to keep it from toppling over or going airborne. The crowd took cover in cars, and the grounds were left an empty field of abandoned blankets, bottles, and ruined umbrellas as the stage lights still flickered mightily.

Tuesday looked stormy and gray until about noon, when the rock ’n’ roll gods took notice and parted all the clouds: blues skies and fluffy clouds emerged.

Widespread Panic hit the stage at 6:45 p.m. with John Bell half-growling “How’s everyone doing?” It was on to jam band business with no intra-song banter, just beautiful, layered grooves stretching the band’s compositions into epochal moments with tunes melting into one another.

“Travelin’ Light” was Widespread Panic’s luscious opener, and then it was on to “Can’t Get High” and “Ride Me High.” Set high points were songs that were imbued with references to other musical leanings – “Shut Up and Drive” with its tribal drum line, and the go-go twirls of “Cotton Was King.”

The frontmen – Bell, guitarist Jimmy Herring, and bassist Dave Schools – seem to communicate with each other telepathically; the tiniest gestures, and micro-glances between them signal beginnings and endings.

Visually stunning drummer Duane Trucks (hovering in the 70s with aviator shades, bandanna and formidable sideburns), subbing for Todd Nance, was a lovely force and matched the percussive talents of Domingo Ortiz dynamically. Their later-show duet (or double-solo) in the band’s second set was an unforgettable moment inspiring the evening’s best twirls from audience members as well as some of the loudest hoots and hollers.

Among those at the nearly sold-out show was a couple who had married a scant hour before in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Clay and Renee Walters drove seven hours from Ashland, Ky., to marry and to be at the concert. And why did they decide to marry and honeymoon at Widespread Panic? “Because it’s beautiful, and the band is nonfabricated,” Clay said. Between them, they’ve been to 225 Widespread Panic shows: 200 for him, 25 for her

For the band’s second set, as the sun disappeared behind the gorge, a fog machine valiantly spat out fog clouds toward those in front of the stage.

Backdrops became more colorful. The band glided through lovely “Surprise Valley” and several more before an encore and a hearty “Thank you everybody!” from the beloved bandleader.