What’s Orion Amphitheater going to do for an encore?
The Huntsville venue’s debut season of concerts in 2022 brought unprecedented music buzz to an Alabama city previously known for NASA engineering and Space Camp. Orion’s classic-coliseum-meets-modern-optimization design and punch-above-its-weight-class lineup drew coverage from the likes of Rolling Stone and Wall Street Journal.
Orion’s first year lineup included major stars, like jam kings Dave Matthews Band and rock iconoclast Jack White, who’d never performed in Huntsville before (and likely wouldn’t have ever without Orion). The lineup was further stacked with big names like Chris Stapleton, Black Keys, Earth, Wind & Fire, Kenny Chesney, Black Crowes, Widespread Panic and My Morning Jacket.
In May, Orion was christened with an opening celebration weekend of concerts featuring Alabama-rooted “gets” like Jason Isbell, Brittany Howard and Emmylou Harris. On Halloween night, Stevie Nicks put an exclamation mark on the amphitheater’s first year. The Fleetwood Mac legend’s spellbinding Orion concert immediately felt like one of Huntsville’s all-time classics.
Orion Year One felt like a line in the sand in the city’s music and cultural history. The mid ‘70s opening of Von Braun Center — the arena which has brought legends like Prince, Metallica, Tina Turner and Johnny Cash to Huntsville — was another such moment.
With Orion, the possibilities of what tours can come to Huntsville are now the best they’ve been since the early ‘90s. Especially when the VBC’s 1,600-capacity Mars Music Hall, which vastly increased the number of quality touring shows here, is also considered. It’s an exciting time to be a music fan in Huntsville.
Like many concert-level venues, Orion doesn’t actually book the bands that perform there. The amphitheater receives requests from promoters like Live Nation and AEG and others to host concerts they’re bringing to Huntsville.
Orion is run by tvg hospitality, a city-contacted venture cofounded by Mumford & Sons musician Ben Lovett that also helms venues in London, etc. And tvg isn’t finished shaking up Huntsville. They plan on opening a club-sized venue, Meridian Arts Club, in spring 2023, downtown. In addition to concerts at Orion, free community events, ranging from a Hispanic festival to vinyl record show, introduced locals to the amphitheater during its opening year.
Given the hot start, it’s fun to think about what Orion’s year-two might look like. Recently, I put together the below list of 10 artists I’d love to see in the amphitheater’s 2023 lineup.
I didn’t include any repeats from year one’s lineup. Or from the “10 bands perfect to open the amphitheater” list AL.com put together in fall 2020, after Huntsville City Council approved funding for the venue later named Orion. Otherwise, I’d add Lenny Kravitz, Robert Plant and Phish from that “perfect openers” list to the ‘23 wish list. They’re all three very doable.
Because of its charming design and tvg’s connections, Orion has a better-than-OK shot at landing occasional underplays. (An underplay refers to when an artist plays a smaller venue than they’d normally play.)
That said, for this 2023 lineup wish list, underplays were avoided. So, no Taylor Swift. No Guns N’ Roses. No U2, Drake or Cardi B. either.
Also, I researched which artists have played other amphitheaters in the South in recent years as well as venues comparable in size to Orion. Which artists would likely sell well in this market was also considered.
OK, enough context. Let’s rub the concert genie lamp and see what happens.
Heart is known for their She Zeppelin essentials, ‘70s hits like “Barracuda” and “Magic Man.” Led by one of rock’s greatest sister duos, super singer Ann Wilson and guitar goddess Nancy Wilson, the band’s ‘80s power-ballads, like “Alone” and “These Dreams,” have aged well too. Ann and Nancy have been touring with their own solo bands of late. But, as Ann told me during our interview this spring, “Next year actually is the anniversary of the band starting. And I haven’t locked it yet with Nancy, but I know she’s gonna want to be part of it.”
The last Heart tour, in 2019, included several amphitheaters, including Oak Mountain in the Birmingham area. It’s been a minute since Heart performed in Huntsville, although back in the day their tours often wound through the city’s Von Braun Center. Ann recorded her strong 2022 solo album at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios, just down the road from Huntsville. A Heart 50th anniversary tour Orion show could be as special as Nicks’ year-one closer.
Billy Strings is to bluegrass what Stevie Ray Vaughan was to blues. Their guitar virtuosity makes their music transcend beyond fans of their respective genres. Strings is a gifted bluegrass flat-picker and singer. Plus, with his youth and long hair he looks way cooler than most bluegrassers, who tend to resemble farmers or hardware store employees. Strings’ knotty improvisations, detours into distortion, and songs like addict-anthem “Dust in a Baggie” made him the jam-band scene’s new darling. His 2020 show at the VBC’s Mars Music Hall sold-out. He’s now a strong draw at festivals ranging from Outlaw to Lollapalooza. A 2023 Billy Strings show at Orion would be a hot ticket.
Funk singer supreme George Clinton unretired for a 2022 Parliament Funkadelic tour. P-Funk is one of the most influential bands ever, having inspired acts from Dr. Dre to D’Angelo. P-Funk jams like “Up for the Down Stroke” and “Flash Light” would turn Orion into one big mothership. A mid ‘90s P-Funk performance at now defunct Birmingham festival City Stages was one of the most racially intermixed concerts I’ve ever been in. Black and white folks, all “One Nation Under a Groove.” It would be great to have that kind of unifying concert happen in Huntsville. Besides, a P-Funk show at Orion would be the party of the year.
Phoebe Bridgers is one of indie rock’s brightest talents. Her mix of ethereal vocals and gritty simple guitars rings up hundreds of millions of streams, for songs like “Motion Sickness” and “Kyoto.” Her 2022 performance at Gulf Shores’ Hangout Music Festival drew a big crowd and rave reviews. Bridgers’ touring this year wound through several amphitheaters, including the St. Augustine, Florida venue formerly run by Ryan Murphy, now Orion’s general manager. Just sayin’.
Can you believe “Rebel Yell” will turn 40 next year? Billy Idol’s massive 1983 album boasted the fist-pumping title track as well as “Eyes Without a Face” and “Flesh For Fantasy,” hits that alloyed punk, pop and dance music. With spiky haired shredder Steve Stevens still riding shotgun, Idol’s sets come fully-equipped with hits like “Cradle of Love,” Tommy James cover “Mony Mony” and “Dancing With Myself,” a tune that dates back to Idol’s early days fronting British punk pioneers Generation X. Orion Amphitheater’s 8,000-capacity would be a good fit for an Idol, who’s hit a few tertiary market amphitheaters in recent years.
Singer and songwriter Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson, known professionally as H.E.R., is an R&B dynamo. Just 25, she’s already won five Grammys. Tracks like “I Can’t Breathe” and “Slide” merge timeless feel, personal lyrics and “now” production. She’s a stirring vocalist. And a bad enough mutha on guitar she has her own signature model Stratocaster. H.E.R.’s touring this year included amphitheaters, including a handful in the South. Here’s hoping she brings that talent and Strat to Orion in ‘23.
Nineties alt-rock and ‘80s metal are the new classic rock. Jane’s Addiction’s mighty, weird and wonderful music is all that and beyond. With albums like 1988 studio debut “Nothing’s Shocking” and 1990′s “Ritual de lo Habitual” Jane’s set the template many lesser ’90s bands gravy-trained to big bucks. Frontman/shaman Perry Farrell and Jane’s are currently coheadlining an arena tour with Smashing Pumpkins. The band’s been recording new material with original bassist Eric Avery, too. I know we’ve already mentioned anniversaries a couple times in this piece, but that’s a major angle for tours now. The 35th anniversary of “Nothing’s Shocking” just so happens to be next year. Eight-thousand or so fans at Orion singing “Jane Says” along with Farrell would be epic.
Wu-Tang Clan, the Staten Island mad-scientist collective, recently did a coheadlining tour with fellow ‘90s rap-god Nas. How about a WTC show in the HSV for ‘23? Having covered the group at Bonnaroo before, I know how rad jams like “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)” and “Protect Ya Neck” sound outdoors. Wu-Tang performed at several amphitheaters in the South with Nas. And in 2019, the Wu-Tang Clan did a show at Heritage Park Amphitheater in the Greenville, S.C., area, a market very similar to Huntsville.
Orion’s strong debut season was missing a crucial element: heavy-metal. Big metal bands do well in Huntsville, as this year’s packed VBC Arena show by the band Ghost attests. Megadeth, a band founded by former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine, would be an excellent fit at Orion. Led by Mustaine’s gnarly shredding and complex compositions, Megadeth are metal legends in their own right. What’s not to love about a black-clad throng headbanging to “Peace Sells” at Orion?
The Chicks (formerly known as The Dixie Chicks)
Whether you’re into it or not, it’s a fact: There’s always going to be a hefty dose of country in Huntsville’s concert mix. Orion’s ’22 lineup featured Kenny Chesney, Hank Williams Jr. and Luke Bryan. Nineties country phenoms The Chicks performed at several amphitheaters on tour this year, including Alpharetta, Ga.’s Ameris Bank Amphitheatre, a venue several 2022 Orion artists hit, too. So the dots from Chicks to Orion connect. Whatever your thoughts on their politics, the band’s classics are unassailable. “Wide Open Spaces” and “There’s Your Trouble” would fill Orion with sweet spirited harmonies.
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