As audiences everywhere look ahead to brighter days, music lovers in Huntsville, Alabama, have another development to anticipate: the Huntsville Amphitheater. Last October, the Huntsville City Council approved plans for the 8,000-capacity venue in MidCity, developed in partnership with global hospitality company Venue Group. Today, Venue Group announced a projected opening date of April 2022, complete with a culinary village and programming well beyond ticketed music events.
“We’re excited about broadening the categorization of a night out at a concert,” says Venue Group CEO Ben Lovett, a founding member of the English folk rock group Mumford & Sons. “It isn’t just getting back from work, getting the babysitter, wolfing down a quick meal, sitting in traffic, arriving, missing the first ten minutes of the show, downing a couple of drinks, and then trying to get out before the traffic.” Rather, Lovett and his partners hope to welcome visitors before, after, and even between shows. The company is currently in conversations with local and regional chefs and makers to create a culinary and entertainment destination. “What we’re looking at is how you take the key elements of that evening outside of the show and provide a truly special variety of options,” Lovett says.
In addition to ticketed events, the team anticipates plenty of community programming, too. “It’s great to have twenty major concerts roll through, and there’s a pride in being able to say, ‘Oh, wow, Paul Simon is playing right around the corner,’” says Ryan Murphy, who will head up Venue Group’s Huntsville operations. “But there’s also the ability to use a facility like this year-round: You can expose the community to different art installations, farmers’ markets, festivals, even use it for graduations.”
G&G caught up with Lovett and Murphy about the new project, why Huntsville seemed like the perfect location, and why Southern hospitality might be the amphitheater’s secret weapon.
What made Huntsville the ideal city for a project of this size?
Lovett: Huntsville is unique. It’s the fastest-growing city by a long shot in the state—this year it will be the largest city in Alabama. There’s a huge amount of job growth and opportunities, but it’s not necessarily keeping up in terms of its cultural offering. This was highlighted in 2016 and 2017 in an audit by a company called Sound Diplomacy, which has done audits like this for cities all over the U.S. They kind of look at the health of the cultural economy in any given city or town… [Meanwhile,] we were looking for a city that was open to the idea of doing something different and better, and the stars aligned.
Tell us about the decision to make this a destination beyond ticketed concerts and events.
Murphy: If you have this great facility, this amphitheater that they used municipal tax dollars to build, it should really be treated as an amenity for the community. For the last ten years in St. Augustine, Florida, where I was running the amphitheater, I very much had that mindset. There were people who would come to me and say, “I love the amphitheater and everything you guys are doing, and I’ve never been to a concert…We come all the time for the markets and the festivals and the free events. We bring our kids.” What a great balance to strike, you know?
Ben, you’ve traveled the world as a member of Mumford & Sons, and you’ve now worked on several venues. From a musician’s perspective, what makes a good venue great?
Lovett: We’ve got kind of big ideas, but I think that they’re actually the ideas that should be setting a new standard for anyone who wants to go build a venue. We’ve got various road warriors and production experts who are giving their opinion about the exact sequencing that you would want from the moment you arrive as an artist to when you step off the tour bus and walk up to your dressing room. I’ve done that a thousand times in my career, and sometimes it’s just unbelievably complicated—the classic Spinal Tap moment where you can’t even find your way to the stage. It’s just the little things, the little touches. Catering, for a lot of venues, there’s just a box of takeout, or strip lighting and some hot plates. Why don’t we build like a mini-restaurant on the top floor with views that span over the city? Why not have the [dressing] room, where you’re going to spend anywhere from eight to sixteen hours on a show day, be somewhere that’s actually truly comfortable and inspiring and gives you a positive memory of visiting that venue?
Murphy: When you’re rolling into a new town, your experience from the moment you pull in to the moment you leave is directly going to affect the nuances of how you engage with the fans. You can really tell when a band’s had a great day because they end up talking about it on stage, too. That’s such a great thing to watch the artists go out and say, “Wow, we love Huntsville. What an amazing place.”
What makes Huntsville such an amazing place to each of you?
Lovett: It goes beyond the NASA headlines and the FBI headlines. There are a lot of great jobs in Huntsville, but people aren’t talking about the arts scene, which is very strong. My first slap-across-the-face revelation when visiting Huntsville was that if you’re into the arts, there’s a place called Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment. It’s the largest privately owned arts facility in the Southern U.S. I’ve lived in America. I’ve traveled all fifty states. Having this huge facility where you have hundreds of artists working alongside each other in their own studios…it’s really a sight to behold.
Murphy: I’ve always loved the idea that when artists come to play, they know to take the day off before or after because they’ve heard, “You have to go see the waterfalls” or “You have to go to space camp” or “Judy Hood is going to come over and give you a whole behind-the-scenes Swampers tour at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios.” There’s currently work being done to put a 160-mile trail together—a continuous bike trail that spans from Muscle Shoals all the way to Scottsboro, following the Tennessee River, called the Singing River Trail. You also have the rocket programs, and then you have the music and the arts. And yet none of these things have been sewn together in a tapestry that shows Huntsville in the way it deserves to be shown. We get to strike out of the gate by creating a facility that can incorporate those things.