'Spreadheads' at The Wharf

Extraordinary circumstances seemed to take on a business-as-usual air Friday night as jam band Widespread Panic opened a two-night stand in Orange Beach.

It was indisputably a night of firsts: The first time Panic had played an arena-size show in the Mobile area but outside Mobile proper; the first time any group has played two nights at the year-old Amphitheater at The Wharf; and, beyond that, the 10,200-seat venue's first double sellout.

Yet The Wharf, a massive retail, entertainment and lodging development located on the Intracoastal Waterway at the foot of the Foley Beach Express, seemed big enough to take it all in stride. Traffic entering the compound less than an hour before the show seemed to flow smoothly, free parking was plentiful, and the pedestrian logjams as incoming fans cleared light security checks were minor.

Widespread Panic, somewhat in the tradition of the Grateful Dead, is known for inspiring fans to follow the band from show to show, and it is not unusual to encounter "Spreadheads" who've seen the group dozens of times. As with the Dead, the group's fanbase sometimes generates complaints of drug use and other misbehavior, particularly in the parking lots outside the shows.

At the Wharf, however, the pre-show scene seemed relatively sedate. In one lot, a band provided pre-show entertainment, but the general level of activity was no more hedonistic than what one would encounter outside a football game.

One reason for this might have been a policy spelled out on Widespread Panic's official Web site, which notified fans that The Wharf was not allowing "vending of any kind" in its lots during the weekend.

Despite the calm, fans were excited. James West, a Mobile insurance agent, said he was "really happy they're back in Orange Beach." He referred to a show he had not seen personally, a 1993 appearance at a club called the L.A. Getaway.

Since those days, the band's fame has grown. It has played near-capacity shows at the University of South Alabama Mitchell Center and the Mobile Civic Center, as well as being a BayFest headliner. West, who said he'd seen the group more than 20 times in a variety of venues, said he was glad to see them locally in an outdoor setting.

"Most definitely," he said. "The open-air experience is definitely superior."

This particular night seemed to bear out West's opinion. A light breeze kept things cool as sunset approached, then tapered off as darkness fell, leaving the open-air venue as comfortable as any air-conditioned arena.

The Amphitheater was nearly empty at the advertised start time of 7 p.m. Fans entered the venue slowly but steadily as opening acts DJ Logic and Jerry Joseph played compact sets, and by the time Widespread Panic walked onstage at 8:30 p.m., they had an amphitheater full of stomping, cheering listeners.

Lead singer John Bell was typically brief in his opening remarks: "Hello, everybody," he said, then thanked the openers and "all you wonderful people."

And then the band got down to business, briskly laying into "1x1," a song that showcased its famed flexibility, starting with a country two-step beat, then flowing into brief intervals of what seemed like free-form jazz as the tempo shifted to martial rock and back. Next came a smooth segue to "Holden Oversoul," another tune whose lyrics, in classic Panic style, mix rustic settings and mystic imagery. Either song, depending on one's mindset, could be read as a folk fable or as a spooky H.P. Lovecraft-style tale.

But to 10,000 standing, swaying, dancing fans, no such analysis was necessary. It was simply the start of a good night, likely to be followed by more of the same the next day.