June 6-14 • 21st Century Waterfront, Chattanooga, TN
Widespread Panic kicked off their show Saturday night by playing "Disco." And playing it. And playing it.
For 10 minutes, the band jammed, improvising their way through their opening number before transitioning to the rest of their three-hour set.
And for the whole set, their fans danced, shoulder to shoulder. They stooped, stomped, shuffled and shook their hips. Some were smooth; most were stiff.
Saturday's show brought one of the world's most famous jam bands to the Scenic City. Unlike the traditional country and classic rock groups that often headline Riverbend, Widespread Panic improvises throughout their live performances and plays long sets that are never, ever exactly the same from show to show.
More than the actual music, though, Widespread Panic's live shows are known for something less measurable. They're known for their atmosphere, their good-time vibes, their carefree feeling, man.
It is this feeling that has helped Widespread Panic build an army of dedicated fans who drive hundreds of miles to see their live shows. This held true Saturday. Even though some said the festival atmosphere would create a shorter, less intimate performance than usual, fans came from all over the Southeast.
Paul Gil drove from Baton Rouge, La. He has been a fan of Widespread Panic since his friend brought him to a show in Houston 20 years ago. He loved the Athens, Ga., band's Southern sound, and he loved how everyone at the show seemed so friendly and passionate about the group.
One hundred and thirty-two shows later, he still loves the sense of community he feels at a Widespread Panic concert. When he's at home, he chats with other fans on Panicstream.com, and sometimes they organize trips together.
Before Saturday's show, Gil drank beer with about 35 of those fans.
"It's a lifestyle," said one of Gil's friends, 49-year-old Tres Gooch, of Flat Rock, N.C.
Groups like Gil's packed Riverbend on Saturday. For one night, Widespread Panic turned the festival into a hippie parade. Tie-dyed shirts and bandanas and dreadlocks filled Riverfront Parkway. Leather sandals replaced the cowboy boots so often seen at the festival.
Kendall Stevens, 26, came with 13 friends from Jackson, Miss. With 73 concerts under his belt, Stevens is the most experienced fan in his group. He even flew to the Dominican Republic with his fiancee when Widespread Panic played there, so they could get married and then immediately see a show.
The band also drew plenty of local fans. Heather Kilgore started listening to Widespread Panic about 20 years ago when her friends had an extra ticket to an Atlanta show.
Kilgore wasn't the only one to say Saturday that the band changed her life. She doesn't mean that the way some people say a movie or song will "change your life." She means Widespread Panic literally changed her life.
The band inspired her to learn how to play the guitar, which inspired her to perform with others, which led her to her husband, a fellow musician. The two are now in a band called The Scarlet Love Conspiracy.
This year, Kilgore volunteered to transport Riverbend's artists from the shows to their hotels. That meant she spent Saturday night with Widespread Panic. As volunteer, she said, she has to act professional -- no pictures, no autographs, no shrieking.
"You keep it calm on the outside," she said. "You just squeal on the inside."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett tjett@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6476.