– The First Waltz
Brittany Howard, Drive-By Truckers, Emmylou Harris and more will help celebrate the grand opening of The Orion Amphitheater.
Ask what a Welshman musician is doing in Huntsville, Ala., and Mumford & Sons keyboardist/co-founder Ben Lovett laughs. “That sounds like the first line of a bad joke.” In his role as CEO of the Venue Group, Lovett, along with Forest Hills Stadium’s Mike Luba and David M. Schwarz Architects, Inc., has overseen the design of the 50 million, open-air, 8,000-seat Orion Amphitheater. The venue, which is funded by the city, is set to open May 13 with a three-day “The First Waltz” festival featuring artists with ties to the north Alabama regional music scene, including Brittany Howard, Drive-by Truckers, Emmylou Harris, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, John Paul White, Mavis Staples, St. Paul & The Broken Bones and Waxahatchee.
Even before joining Mumford & Sons, Lovett was promoting concerts in London and ran his own record label. He got a great overview of the touring business through the band’s Gentlemen of the Road Stopover music festival, with an itinerary that included small towns that had never hosted rock concerts before. It was there Lovett met Ryan Murphy, a Florida native and former punk-rocker, who helped promote the tour when it came through St. Augustine, Fla., where he spent a decade running the city’s Amphitheatre before moving to Huntsville to oversee the construction of the Orion.
“This was pretty much my dream job,” says Murphy, general manager of the Orion Amphitheater. “Working with Ben and building this venue from the ground up. I said yes before I found out where it was going to be.”
Lovett has previously entered the music venue space, overseeing the opening of Omeara in 2015 in London’s Flat Iron Square district followed by the Lafayette in the city’s Goods Way, both examples of Ben’s “third space” concept, a village square for entertainment, food and drink, a common meeting place which comes right after where we live and work. With offices in New York (where Lovett now makes his home with his partner and 4-month-old daughter), London, Austin and Nashville (the last two planned locations for new venues), Venue Group is intent on revitalizing local music communities and preserving venues from being turned into condos or another Starbucks.
“The goal is to build a whole new generation of great independent venues,” says Lovett, who is committed to music as an agent of cultural change. “Untied to any individual promoter, so that everyone is welcome, regardless of affiliation. When I pitched this venue, I said it had to be amazing. It couldn’t just be a cookie-cutter shed, but the Red Rocks of the South. We want to put Huntsville on the map.”
Lovett and Murphy are steering clear of putting on their own shows or even getting involved in ticketing (though AXS will be used by the venue), preferring to leave those choices up to the individual artist and promoter.
“We’ve all worked and know people from the Live Nation and AEG leadership,” says Murphy. “But, at the end of the day, if an artist wants to play this venue, let’s try to remove any obstacle. We have friends and allies in both camps.”
“We’re just providing the facility,” says Lovett, whose company will also operate and manage it. “We want to allow both the promoters and artists to flourish. An important principle for me is leveling the playing field. We want to work with everyone.
– Ben Lovett
CEO of Venue Group and Mumford & Sons co-founder/multi-instrumentalist
“It’s hard being an independent promoter. There’s not much meat on the bone. And it’s harder when you don’t have access to these rooms at affordable rates. It’s me helping my 17-year-old self out. Having independent thought and a free spirit are in line with what I feel music is all about. I love that DIY world.”
Indeed, the Orion Amphitheater looks to support the local music scene, booking acts like Aeolians of Oakwood University, Kelvin Wooten, Deqn Sue, Translee and Huntsville Community Drumline for its “The First Waltz” weekend event May 13-15 alongside the headliners.
Located adjacent to the downtown MidCity District, the Orion Amphitheater will provide more than just live music including year-round community programming with seasonal farmer’s markets, food and film festivals, regional theater productions, environmental symposiums and family-oriented events.
Working hand in hand with the city’s Mayor Tommy Battle and the City Council since getting the nod for the project in 2018, Lovett envisioned the Orion as the centerpiece for a place where “you can congregate with the community and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbor … it’s important in this digital age to maintain that personal contact.”
As for his other job as a member of Mumford & Sons, Ben notes the band hasn’t played a live show since March 8, 2020, when they closed the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival in Florida, the culmination of an 18-month-long tour for 2018’s Delta album.
“My life as a musician feels like a passion and a hobby,” says Lovett about his yin-yang occupations. “It’s something I choose to do, but I don’t have to, and I like to keep it that way. At the end of a long day at the office, I can return home to the piano and actually have something to write about. I’m just trying to be as normal as possible now that I have a family to take care of.”
As for whether his Mumford mates will one day take the stage at the impressive new venue – if you build it, will they come? – Lovett has no doubt.
“I’d be offended if the guys didn’t want to play there,” he says.
Lovett is ready to roll out the rest of Orion’s 2022 schedule, promising it’s full of arena headliners and prestige acts.
“This is an incredibly functional city,” he says of Huntsville. “It’s a pretty good example of how local government and business can work hand in hand. Alabama has gotten a bad rap, but I think it’s time for us to take a new look and see what’s actually going on here in 2021. This is a great place to live and work, and no one is being left behind.”
Tickets for The First Waltz go on sale Friday, Nov. 19 at 10 a.m. CT via theorionhuntsville.com, including multi-night packages.