Huntsville facility aims to extend North Alabama’s musical legacy with performances by Jason Isbell, Waxahatchee, and Mavis Staples
As he gazed upon the thousands gathered for the grand opening of the Orion Amphitheater in Huntsville, Alabama, last Friday, singer-songwriter John Paul White articulated the moment with his song “The Good Old Days.”
“There’s something going down in this simple place I grew up in,” sang White, who was born not far down Highway 72 in Muscle Shoals and currently residing in Florence. “Boots are on the ground, singing happy days are here again.”
Titled “The First Waltz,” the weekend gathering at Orion presented an array of artists with connections to Alabama — folks either raised in the area, formed in the region, or with deep ties to the historic music scene in the state’s northwest corner.
Over three days, the new venue featured performances by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Mavis Staples, Brittany Howard, Emmylou Harris, Drive-By Truckers, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, and Waxahatchee, plus local Huntsville talent such as Translee and Deqn Sue & Kelvin Wooten.
“The only way a venue like this happens is when you’ve got all the right cooks in the kitchen — people with their hearts in the right place,” White told Rolling Stone backstage. “It’s not about money. It’s not about capitalism. It’s about doing it for the right reasons.”
Huntsville has long been associated with its defense and aeronautics work at places like Redstone Arsenal and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, hence the amphitheater’s stargazing name. More recently, the city has been going through a cultural renaissance and construction boom as Alabama’s fastest growing city. For every new hotel, restaurant, and retail store popping up, there’s a construction crane hovering over another development site. The Orion is a bonus on top of it all.
“Building the Orion may seem random to people who have never been to Huntsville before,” says Ben Lovett, co-founder and keyboardist for Mumford & Sons who also serves as CEO of London-based venue development group TVG Hospitality. “But, when my band traveled to places that a lot of people would consider ‘random,’ we found that the most beautiful people and amazing examples of humanity exist in those places.”
“I was really pulled into doing something here in Huntsville when I saw how functional the local government is,” Lovett adds. “Everyone here is pushing toward the same goal, which is to serve the people they represent. And what I’m most proud of is that we’ve delivered on every promise we made when we first sat down with city officials in March 2018.”
Orion takes some cues from legacy venues like Red Rocks that are aimed at complementing a particular music scene. In Orion’s case, it is an 8,000-seat venue of classical architecture that aims to recall the sound quality and intricate nature of ancient European designs.
“Thousands of years ago, when they build these coliseums, they had no PA system,” says Ryan Murphy, president of the Huntsville Venue Group (part of TVG Hospitality) and general manager at the Orion. “And yet, they were able to acoustically dial it in with geometry, to where you can hear someone onstage perfectly from the top row — that’s exactly what we did with the Orion.”
Backstage, musicians are milling about before their sets, many reminiscing about growing up in North Alabama, and how the Orion now sits on the same site where Huntsville’s once-popular Madison Square Mall used to be.
Bassist David Hood, who at 78 is the last living member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (aka “The Swampers”), is in awe of Orion’s scope, but also aware that the music he and his colleagues created out of necessity helped pave the road to today.
“When I was coming up, where I lived was a dry county. There were no clubs or anything,” Hood says. “If you wanted to hear live music, you had to go to Birmingham, Memphis or Nashville. All we had to listen to was the radio and the records we owned.
“It was because of that when I decided to dedicate my life to music,” he adds. “My partners and I, we would work longer than anybody else and would work harder than anybody else — we just wanted it so bad.”
Hood is also warmly greeted by Friday night performer Jason Isbell, who once played in the Drive-By Truckers with Hood’s son Patterson.
“You know, it’s fun to see the young guys coming up and doing it, and doing it well,” Hood tells Rolling Stone once Isbell exits the room. “I’m so proud, because I was afraid when all of us Swampers either died or retired, it was going to be all over for that Muscle Shoals sound. And it’s not — it’s in good hands right now.”
By Saturday, most of the concertgoers have figured out the lay of the land. Surrounding the Orion are several local food trucks and a large beer garden. Inside, there are numerous beverage stations lining the circular concourse that offer craft beer, wine, and liquor.
That afternoon, the Drive-By Truckers pour drinks in the backstage greenroom and ready themselves for a homecoming performance of sorts — co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley both hail from the Muscle Shoals area.
Patterson also wandered to the side of the stage to watch his father David play in the backing band for Mavis Staples. Though it’s a rarity for David to perform live, the elder Hood couldn’t pass up the chance to play the entire set, considering his work is featured on the Staple Singers’ Muscle Shoals recordings, including “I’ll Take You There” — one of many transcendent moments during “The First Waltz” celebration.
“It was a beautiful thing to watch,” Patterson says. “I mean, it’s always a special thing to see Mavis Staples. But, to see her perform those songs with my dad, who played on the original versions, was really amazing.”
As darkness overtook the Orion on Saturday, the Drive-By Truckers roared onto the stage. A triple-guitar threat of Hood, Cooley, and Jay Gonzalez, backed by drummer Brad Morgan and bassist Matt Patton, the ensemble bulldozed through its hour-long set of snarling riffs and thundering percussion.
With beads of sweat dripping down his forehead, Hood couldn’t help but laugh in amazement at their full-circle moment.
“This song is about how rock-n-roll saved my life as a teenager — every damn word of this song is true,” Hood told the crowd as the Truckers’ ended their set with “Let There Be Rock” — a battle cry about a fateful Huntsville night from Hood’s teenage years that resides at the core of the band’s ethos.
“And I’d like to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but we lived to tell about it, and we lived to do a whole lot more crazy, stupid, shit,” Hood screamed into the microphone, his voice echoing into the muggy Alabama night.
The culmination of the evening came when Brittany Howard sauntered onstage. With her towering vocal range and stage presence, the Grammy-winning singer first came to national attention with the formation of the Alabama Shakes in Howard’s native Athens, just west of Huntsville.
For Howard, North Alabama represents the starting line of many years of hard work and dedication that led to worldwide acclaim. It’s also a place where music feels deeply intertwined with tradition.
“There is something pure and organic about life here,” Howard says. “Family is important and people learn from a young age to work hard. Music comes from the soul and feels real — it’s something everyone can relate to.”
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