Spearheaded by Mumford & Son's Ben Lovett, Huntsville's Orion Amphitheater Ushers New Era for City
Around the time he turned 30, Grammy Award-winning musician and founding member of Mumford & Sons Ben Lovett had an epiphany. After more than a decade working in the music industry as both a promoter and an artist, he noticed a universal formula for how people talk about their favorite music memories.
"The story always starts with, 'I once saw artist x performing at y,'" he told Southern Living. "From an artist's point of view … I think about places and the roofs over our heads as we have these moments. I think about the Ryman and the Fox and Bonnaroo—just these great places where things happen. And I thought that would be a cool legacy to go and build places where things happen."
Huntsville's newest music and event venue Orion Amphitheater is a direct result of Lovett's desire to create spaces where things happen. After successfully launching two "third-spaces" and music venues in his hometown of London, England, through his entertainment and hospitality company Venue Group, Lovett brought his talents stateside.
In 2018, the city of Huntsville was seeking help on project to up the ante on the Rocket City's entertainment scene, and Venue Group was thrown into the mix. After hearing the mayor's vision for no-bars-held venue, Lovett was quick to sign on. Over the past three years, he's worked closely with the city to design and develop a state-of-the-art, 8,000-person amphitheater meant to rival venues like Denver's Red Rocks and Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl.
Their combined vision—for a space that will not only bring some of world's most talented musicians to North Alabama but also serve as a hub for cultural events in the city—comes to life May 13-15. The First Waltz, Orion's three-day inaugural celebration, will feature performances by Jason Isbell, Brittany Howard, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Mavis Staples, and Emmylou Harris, alongside local talents Kelvin Wooten, Deqn Sue, Translee, and more.
Ryan Murphy, president of Venue Group's Huntsville division, said opening weekend will serve as a microcosm for what the Orion hopes to achieve for the city and the region in months and years to come.
"I wanted a celebration of North Alabama that not only celebrated the past with the history of North Alabama and Muscle Shoals' music legacy, but I wanted to show what's happening and what the future looks like," he told Southern Living. "So, you have Friday and Saturday which are a ton of nationally touring artists who cut their teeth here. Then Sunday, we're showcasing the really cool talent in Huntsville that's up-and-coming. It's very intentional."
Intentional may be the best word to describe each element that went into developing the Orion. From the listening experience to the food and drink, the backstage amenities to the venue's influence on the city's cultural landscape, not a stone was left unturned.
The bowl-shaped amphitheater design is a feat in and of itself. Featuring a high vertical lift rather than a stretched-out lawn, the Orion keeps fans close to the performing artist for a more intimate experience. The seats are situated on a radial to the center of the stage, which Lovett said eliminates the awkward experience of looking over your shoulder to see a performance.
Outside of the music, Orion is also striving to elevate the level of hospitality one typically expects when attending a concert. "It shouldn't be an either [great music] or [great food and drink]," Lovett said. "We want to create a world where not only have you just seen Jason Isbell perform your favorite show you've ever seen, but you're doing it with the most delicious bite of food in your hands and the tastiest cocktail anyone's ever made you."
Murphy, whose resume includes overseeing the vision for the St. Augustine Amphitheatre as the county's longtime director of cultural events, was drawn to Orion because of Venue Group and the city's commitment to making it more than just a music venue.
"I always saw it holistically," he said. "If we built this amphitheater on one end of the city and it's just kind of doing x number of concerts a year and existing in its own silo, that's fine but what does that have to do with anything else in Huntsville? It's always a shame to see something like this be used 20 to 30 times a year. It's just like why can't we be doing something every day? Like art camps for kids? Or a movie series? Or a lecture series? Why can't it just be a place where people go do yoga on weekends? We're leaning into that pretty heavily."
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When the Orion makes it debut this summer, it'll be the realization of a dream for Lovett, Murphy, and a whole host of others involved in bringing the landmark entertainment destination to life. It'll also be a huge win for local music lovers who will finally be able invest in their local economy and community rather than road tripping to Atlanta or Nashville.
"One of my favorite things over the years with Mumford & Sons has been visiting less travelled places," Lovett said. "The thing I love about it is that you realize that wherever you are, people are people. There's not a reason why people in Atlanta or New York or London deserve better facilities or gigs or artists."
Though Mumford & Sons won't perform at the Orion this go around, Lovett said he hopes to make it happen one day soon. For now, he's thrilled to see some of his favorite people in music take the stage.
"I think it's going to be quite emotional," he said.