WRITTEN BY ERIN COGGINS
The deep ties of Alabama music filled the air around Huntsville’s Midcity as the Orion Amphitheater celebrated its opening weekend May 13-15, 2022.
The First Waltz, featuring artists from Jason Isbell to the Aeolians of Oakwood University, showcased why the Venue Group values the state’s historic ties to music and why they built a world class music venue in the Rocket City.
The Venue Group, a forward-thinking global entertainment and hospitality group founded and led by Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons and partners, broke ground on the 8,000 set amphitheater in February 2021. “The influence of Muscle Shoals on music across the world has been undeniable. The proximity of the Shoals to Huntsville is amazing, as are other historically symbolic places such as Nashville,” Lovett said. “The wider region has this incredibly rich heritage and attracts current day aspirational musicians and culture seekers all the time.” President and General Manager of Huntsville Venue Group, Ryan Murphy, concurs that Huntsville’s close ties to Muscle Shoals music was key in the development and success of the venue.
“What was happening in Muscle Shoals in the late ‘60s in the music industry and what was happening here in Huntsville around that exact same time with the space program, helped plant the seeds for what we see emerging today on a totally different level,” Murphy said. “North Alabama has one of the most fascinating (and yet to be fully discovered) musical histories that I’ve ever come across.”
The ingenuity of the space program was not left out of the plans for the Orion. The amphitheater itself was named after the NASA spacecraft developed to take humans farther than they have ever gone before. And of course in Greek mythology, Orion is the giant huntsman that Zeus placed amongst the stars as the constellation of Orion. Both origins are present in the facility in name and construction, a concept based on the Roman Coliseum and architectural Greek columns.
“There is definitely a tip of the hat and homage to not only the space program but also Greco Roman mythology,” Murphy said. “We spent a lot of time working through many names for both, especially the amphitheater, and worked closely with the City to make sure we got it right.”
The space motif is not only present in the amphitheater’s name, it is also present in the name of 20-acre Apollo Park where the amphitheater is built.
“Similar considerations were made in ultimately naming the park Apollo Park,” Huntsville City’s Director of Urban and Economic Development, Shane Davis said. “Huntsville’s role in the Apollo Space Program was essential for not only putting man on the moon, but also ensuring that we could bring a crew back home alive and well.”
According to Davis, the City always desired to design and construct a regional amphitheater that would be unique compared to most other open venues. The approach to a project of this magnitude was centered around two objectives: Build a venue that would provide an elevated experience for both the artist and the audience; and partner with an operator that could ensure an open venue model.
“After discussions with multiple promoters and operating companies, we felt the Venue Group had the best resources to execute our intentions for the Orion Amphitheater to truly be an ‘open venue’ for scheduling a wide variety of artists and other events,” Davis said.
Once the Venue Group was solidified as the operating partner, they were able to be a part of the overall team during the design phase. Murphy credits much of the success to the project to the City of Huntsville.
“It is a pretty amazing time to be in Huntsville and to witness the convergence of innovation, technology, creativity and thoughtful intention being put into music, culture, arts and quality of life for the people that live here,” Murphy said. “For us, first and foremost, that starts with the City Leadership and when we tell the story of how this venue came to be built and designed, there is so much credit to give to the City leaders who have the vision and aspiration to help push this into the world.”
A venture inside the amphitheater reveals the attention the City and the Venue Group paid to the audience’s needs. Nine food and drink establishments, each featuring a niche of their own.
The Madkin and The Weeden, a pair of bars that flank either side of the stage, were named after the sister mountains on Redstone Arsenal.
“We have a collective of the best venue managers, chefs and hospitality experts,” Murphy said. “You name it and we have the best of the best coming into our team to create a truly world class venue and experience for fans.”
Then there are the world-class acoustics and prime seating.
The Orion is already being compared to venues like Red Rocks, The Greek and the Hollywood Bowl, all known for their great acoustics and ambiance. Huntsville City’s Manager of Long Range and Urban Planning, Dennis Madsen understands why The Orion is being compared to these great venues. Having lived in Atlanta and attended shows at the Cadence Bank Amphitheater at Chastain Park he says that The Orion does not offer a bad seat in the house. “One thing about The Orion is how intimate it is,” Madsen said. “A performance will be like you are with several hundred of your best friends.”
Besides the impressive structure that is The Orion, Madsen says he is most excited about what the Venue Group has in store in partnering with local musicians in the community. He says the Venue Group has already made a vital connection to the City’s Music Board and have planned a local women in music event. “The diversity that is the Huntsville music scene is something that needs to be highlighted,” Madsen said. “Huntsville has a deep hip-hop scene that people do not know about. We are good at promoting the new Southern sound, music like gospel and jazz.”
Madsen says building The Orion has affected how other Huntsville music venues, like Mars Music Hall, Sidetracks and the VBC, are growing and allowing for more bands and artists to perform.
“It’s like that old saying ‘the rising tide lifts all boats’,” Madsen said. “The best of mid-range venues are connecting from the big stage to all the little things.”
With this type of music facility, Huntsville will begin to see bigger artists book shows. The Orion has already scheduled one of country music’s top grossing performers, Kenny Chesney, as well as the Dave Matthews Band. Murphy credits this to the longevity in the music business of those working for the Venue Group.
“Thankfully, many of us have been working in this industry for a long time and collectively we have an enormous amount of trust in our work and our reputation,” Murphy said. “Most agents, managers, artists, promoters know that if we are doing something like this, we are doing it with utmost integrity and thoughtfulness to ensure the best experience for not only the fan, but also the artist and crew. The artists know for a fact that they will be taken care of and have an amazing experience, as much as they know their fans will also be given world-class treatment.”
This is welcoming news for concert-goer Ann Williams. She and her husband attend roughly four to five concerts yearly, most of them in Nashville. She has already purchased tickets to see Jack White, Reo Speedwagon and My Morning Jacket at the Orion.
“My husband and I are thrilled to have a new place to attend concerts with a variety of offerings,” Williams said. “While the VBC does have quite a few shows, most of them were not the genre of music that we like, so we travel to Nashville or Birmingham. While both cities are within driving distance, we always opt to stay in hotels to keep from driving home late at night. Having a new venue will save us money, plus we are just excited to have one more option. Having this amphitheater is going to bring in a lot of business to our local hotels and restaurants as well.”
Madsen agrees with Williams. The Orion will not only have an impact on the Huntsville music scene, it is going to have a tremendous economic impact on the City as well.
“Young professionals that are moving into our city have money to spend,” Madsen said. “They want to spend it on entertainment. When companies like Mazda Toyota call and want to know what our City can offer these young professionals, it will be great to hear about a thriving music scene.”
It is not all about the music, though. The Venue Group has already booked events that are not just music. Murphy says they worked with the Space & Rocket Center to bring Neil DeGrasse Tyson and are collaborating with the Pastors United for Change for a large event that promotes community and healing on a large scale.
“Beyond just these, we have events all year long that will embrace all aspects of the community and we aim to partner with the organizations that have the most positive impact, large and small, that help make this city so great,” Murphy said.
The result of the partnerships between the City and the Venue Group is going to be the success of The Orion. Murphy classifies the venue as completely unique and visionary with nothing like it in the South, but Lovett says it all when he describes the Huntsville community as strong and ambitious.
“Huntsville has history and has achieved some amazing things, but isn’t afraid to progress forward and write a new chapter,” Lovett said. “This venue was the vision of the people of Huntsville and the City administration. We listened, we became inspired and what we have done is a reflection of what Huntsville is about. As the City continues to grow, especially in the direction of a cultural destination, I hope it remains as forward thinking, decisive, collaborative and humble as it is today.”