Orion Amphitheater: What it was like at Alabama venue’s big opening night

A guitar worth half-a-million bucks played onstage at a $40-million-dollar venue should sound great.

But the 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul that Jason Isbell shredded on during his headlining Orion Amphitheater set Friday didn’t sound great.

It sounded amazing.

Isbell’s sky-kissing guitar licks were an apex in a night of many, during the first night of The First Waltz, a weekend of concerts with a dream lineup of Alabama-centric music, held to celebrate the opening of Orion, a new and instantly bucket-list venue in Huntsville.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Jason Isbell performs Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

Four years of plans and pitches. Construction and COVID. Hard work and hype. A world-class amphitheater in Huntsville – a smart, growing but heretofore un-sexy city – is now a thing.

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Orion Amphitheater: A look inside Huntsville’s new $40 million venue

Last weekend, Orion held the major-venue equivalent of a soft-opening, with a local hospital fundraiser featuring country singer Jake Owen. But First Waltz is the pulling-the-cork-out-of-the-champagne-bottle moment. And Friday, Orion lived up to and exceeded expectations for its design, execution, vibe and sound.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

Wanting to scope out the amphitheater’s concert-night atmosphere – and old enough avoiding traffic is now a life priority – I arrived at Orion around 5:45 p.m. About 75 minutes before the concert began. Instead of the main University Drive or Research Park Drive approaches, I took a somewhat backroads route to MidCity, the multi-use development Orion’s located at. That route and that early, it was easy and quick getting there. Friends who’d taken University in early, told me that way went smoothly too.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’

Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

Obviously, the closer you arrive to the start of a concert with 7,000 to 8,000 people there, the more jammed up things will be. It’s also likely for the first few Orion concerts, more fans will arrive early than they’d normally for a concert, curious to explore the venue. But, since MidCity is home to several bars and restaurants, getting there early works, if your budget allows for it.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

As far as parking proximity goes, Orion reps have touted a five-minute walk from their three lots (and elsewhere in MidCity) to the venue. I was given a parking pass for Lot C. That’s on Old Monrovia Road, on the outskirts of MidCity, built on the former Madison Square Mall grounds. And yep, it turned out to be almost exactly a five-minute walk in. A brisk walk. But still.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

Since you’re walking west to the amphitheater, you’re also walking into the sun. It got pretty tepid Friday. During summer it will likely be beastly hot. Before the show, I found myself making decisions based on shade.

Getting inside the venue was easy too. Like many venues now, the focus is on digital ticketing at Orion, You download tix via the AXS app to your smartphone. Entrances to the amphitheater are near the north and south box offices. There’s a bag check lane and a lane for those without purses or bags. Closer to the venue, Orion staff scans the QR code off your digital ticket. Inside the exterior gates, there’s a wide paved path leading up to and around Orion.

If you want to fully appreciate Orion’s exterior coliseum-like charm, take the south entrance. The north entrance doesn’t have the same curb appeal. But the north entrance is much closer to the food truck area. All the food options I saw at Orion were outside vendors on the northwest side. Nearby, there’s a sizable web-shaped pavilion with picnic tables underneath. Soda/water vending stations are spaced around the amph’s exterior and at the pavilion’s center.

Eating and drinking at Orion, like many large-scale events, is not for the frugal. Canned water is $6. Sodas are $5. There was a nifty array of food trucks Friday, from creative sandwiches to Korean to vegan fare to beignets to tricked-out hotdogs and mac-&-chase. Many meals are priced around $15. The Korean food, by the way, was tasty and satisfying.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Food at Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

For revelers used to crushing $8 mega-cups of domestic beer at concerts, there’s going to be sticker shock. Beers at Orion are around $12. Shots around $10. Cocktails around $18. From the beginning though, Orion’s leadership has said the food and beverage options would be elevated.

Look, I wasn’t stoked to shell out five bucks for a Diet Coke. But if you think about it, you pay about that much (or more) at the movies or a major-league ballgame.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

Oh, and the cups. Instead of disposable one-use plastic, Orion recycles the cups they pour their beverages into.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

The two concourses around Orion’s exterior are open, wide and airy. Inside the amphitheater, where the seating is, between-section walkways are ample too. Orion’s bowl layout is stylish. But there’s lots of practicality too. It’s striking how many different things they have enough of. Restrooms. Those aforementioned beverage stations. Ways to get in and out of the amphitheater. And up and down it. The staff’s helpful and cheerful too.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

Since many spring and summer outdoor concerts start while it’s daylight , tickets for seats on the bowl’s westside, which is shaded, will be desirable. If you have eastside bowl tix, hanging in the concourses or under the pavilion before showtime might be the move. Leave the Danzig tee and black tights at home until Orion’s fall concerts. Light and loose fighting clothing are good strategies for now.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

Now for the most important part about the Orion experience, the sound. It’s clear and balanced, with subtle natural echo from the venue’s interior bowl shape. During quieter musical moments, it’s striking how well you can hear details – down to between-song chatter or unamplified guitar strum.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

John Paul White performs Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

The music Friday at First Waltz started around 7 p.m. with a set by John Paul White. His nightingale vocals set a beautiful tone for the night. Wearing a blue-gray Billy Reid suit and backed by a nimble band (bassist Spencer Duncan, drummer Reid Watson, keyboardist Ben Tanner, guitarist Adam Morrow), White exuded gentleman charm. Set highs included solo tune “I Wish I Could Write You A Song,” Roy Orbison-style guitar pop, and “Barton Hollow,” a swampy stomp by White’s former band, The Civil Wars. A longtime Florence resident, White voiced his amazement with Orion several times from the stage. He called the amphitheater, “a dream come true we didn’t know we had.”

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Waxahatchee performs Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

Day had softened to dusk then night for the next act Friday, Waxahatchee. The band’s the brainchild of Birmingham native Katie Crutchfield. She’s a Southern-thrift-store Stevie Nicks, in the best way. Waxahatchee’s music involves lots of “ooh” vocals, daydream harmonies and hypno-chime guitar. Crutchfield grooves behind the mic to it al. Her personal lyrics paint roses and thorns.

Twangy tune “Lilacs” stood out in a set that won Waxahatchee, indie press darlings, new fans among the First Waltz crowd, which had more than a touch of gray. Crutchfield’s touring musicians provided simpatico grooves, textures and backing vocals. Between songs, Crutchfield remarked she thinks Orion “will become legendary.” Since Waxahatchee recently performed at the Hollywood Bowl, we’ll take that as a good sign.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

I watched most of Friday’s First Waltz performance from the general admission pit area. Up front. The back of the stage-house was adorned with a black curtain. Tasteful lighting rig overhead. A row of svelte black speakers hangs from each side.

Mathematics and knowledgeable concertgoers will tell you the sound’s better a little further back. But Friday, the mix sounded good close too. Behind a fence partitioning the pit, there were floor seats. The seats are folding chairs, which can be removed for Orion concerts likely to have more active audiences, like say the upcoming three-night stand by jam-band Widespread Panic.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

During Waxahatchee’s set, I left the pit and walked up to the lower bowl section to take in the show from a difference perspective. Clear but not eyelash singeing sound. Nice sightlines, even from the sides. The seats around the bowl are wooden benches, similar to how they are at Colorado’s storied Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Perfectly comfortable. Folks who don’t want to lug in a stadium seat, but want back support will want to purchase seats in the back row of the lower and upper bowls sections. There’s railing behind them, which also make a good backrest.

From the very back of the upper bowl section, the farthest seats in the house, the sound and sights are still legit. You don’t need a video screen onstage to feel engaged with the performance. And there was vary a screen onstage Friday, although some acts playing Orion might bring them in as part of their tour production.

The sky overhead was azure and wispy clouds early and darkened clouds and moon later. After dark, during performances the bowl’s darkened, with minimal ambient lighting. Between sets, Orion turns on the house lights.

The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Emmylou Harris performs Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

After the stage was changed over for about 20 minutes after Waxahatchee’s set, the house lights went dark. The crowd was immediately energized. Screaming, “Emmylou!” Emmylou Harris’s Red Dirt Boys kicked in and Harris trotted onstage, picked up her jumbo acoustic and stepped to the mic.

For the next hour or so, Harris put on a clinic of silver-fox star-power. In fine voice, Harris held the crowd in the palm of her hand. Early sparks included scrapbook strummer “Red Dirt Girl” and a twangy “Guitar Town” Steve Earle cover.

During some onstage technical difficulties, getting a backing vocal mic to work, Harris told a divorce joke she’d heard from fellow roots-goddess Loretta Lynn. After the mic gremlins were tamed, Harris played a stirring spiritual number. Next, she quipped, “From the sacred to the profane.” That cued the band into “Ooh Las Vegas,” a hangover romp by late country-rocker Gram Parsons, with whom Harris made essential records. The Red Dirt Boys (drums, bass, keys/guitar, pedal steel) looked like librarians. But they played like the devil.

First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’

Jason Isbell performs Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

The first three acts Friday at First Waltz were all sterling. But I was ready to hear what something more rocking would sound in here. Got the answer when Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took the stage around 10:30 p.m. As the headliner, Isbell was the first act Friday to have a lightshow. Mostly geometric stuff that accented the onstage atmosphere, but never dictated it. When White’s set started earlier, Orion was around two-thirds full. By the time Harris and then Isbell took the stage later, the place looked close to capacity.

A favorite son of Muscle Shoals, Isbell’s music evokes an alternative universe, in which: Bruce Springsteen is from Alabama instead of New Jersey; and his besties are Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers instead of the E Street Band. Isbell’s Orion highlights included sleek-guitar singles “Hope The High Road” and “24 Frames.”

400 Unit guitarist and future-Oasis-member Sadler Vaden took the mic for a rousing cover of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s riffy “Honeysuckle Blue.” Sheffield native Jimbo Hart’s round, sidewinding bass drove many songs in the set. Keyboardist Derry deBorja keyboard textures, sly and crucial.

First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater

Jason Isbell performs Friday night at The First Waltz, Orion Amphitheater’s weekend of opening celebration concerts. (Matt Wake/mwake@AL.com)

From behind a sparkly Gretsch kit, Tuscumbia’s Chad Gamble, gave “Cover Me Up” – the Americana version of “Let’s Get It On” – orchestral wallop. During several songs, Isbell and Vaden engaged in thrilling lead-guitar trade-offs.

Dressed in faded jeans and dark shirt, Isbell was relaxed and in great spirits. Between songs he gave a shout-out to his mom and aunt, who were in attendance. He reminisced fondly about early bar gigs in Huntsville. Like the support acts, Isbell couldn’t hide how impressed he was with Orion Amphitheater. “This is a beautiful place,” Isbell said.

Isbell closed his First Waltz set with an epic version of “Decoration Day.” The song’s his finest from his time with Drive-By Truckers (who are set to perform Saturday at First Waltz, along with Mavis Staples, St. Paul & The Broken Bones and Brittany Howard).

The menacing “Decoration Day” arpeggios have always echoed Lynyrd Skynyrd. When Isbell brought out his ‘59 Les Paul, formerly belonging to Skynyrd legend Ed King, those echoes loudened. After the last fangs of “Decoration Day” faded, Isbell and band took their bows. And the first big concert at Orion Amphitheater was over.

Getting out of Orion was a snap. After the house lights came on, I stuck around to catch up and reflect with fellow journos, local venue operators and musician friends who were also hanging back. After another five-minute walk, I was in my car and on my way home. After a night like that though, it was a while before sleep would come.

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