The first three months of concert announcements for the Orion Amphitheater’s first year of operation have included some big names. And a lot of white male headliners. Dave Matthews, Chris Stapleton, Jack White, Kenny Chesney, Jason Isbell, Black Keys, Josh Groban, My Morning Jacket, Black Crowes, Widespread Panic, Styx and REO Speedwagon.

To be fair, there was a bit of diversity in the mix. Brittany Howard, the dynamic black female alternative rock solo star and former singer of the Alabama Shakes, headlines the second night of Orion’s First Waltz opening celebration weekend. The Staple Singers’ classic soul icon, Mavis Staples, is also part of The First Waltz line. Just like singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris and indie rocker Waxahatchee, two outstanding female artists.

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The first waltz culminates in a day of performances by black artists with strong roots in the region, including the Aeolians Choir of Oakwood University and R&B/rap/multi-instrumentalist producer Kelvin Wooten. Half of the musicians who support Matthews in the Dave Matthews Band are black.

Still, the headliners skewed the music heavily white, masculine, and guitar-oriented. Recently, there has been increasing chatter on social media from those whose tastes, concerns, and/or listening culture fall outside of these parameters.

Come in, Orion’s Monday announcement of a June 25 gig by ’80s and ’90s R&B star Keith Sweat. During his prime “new jack swing,” Sweat, who is black, released six back-to-back platinum albums and a slew of hits, including “I Want Her,” “Make You Sweat,” “Twisted,” and “Keep It Comin’.” Tickets to Sweat’s Orion show are $35-$99 ( fees extra) and will go on sale at 10 a.m. on March 5 via axs.com.

Ryan Murphy is president of Huntsville Venue Group, the company contracted by the City of Huntsville to manage, build and operate the amphitheater. Murphy came to Huntsville from Florida’s St. Augustine Amphitheater, a venue that has attracted a wide array of top performers from Blondie to Slayer to Kendrick Lamar.

For some time now, Murphy has been aware of Keith Sweat’s booking of Orion and other more diverse gigs to be announced for the Huntsville Amphitheater later this year. “A fear that we had,” Murphy told AL.com, “we knew what we were deploying with, which was white guys of all genders. But there’s a lot of intention and work It’s an interesting market to make sure people are going to be convinced that they’re going to have a good time and be treated well and so on.

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Murphy says Orion will soon be announcing more headliners who are R&B and rap artists, women, black people and otherwise, well, not white guys with guitars. “I don’t mind people wanting to poke holes,” Murphy says, “and criticize what we’ve done so far. I just have to be patient and, you know, come talk to me on December 31st about what we’ve been up to for the year. But we’re not even open yet, so give me a little grace while we get this thing going.

Construction of Orion, a world-class site in Huntsville’s Mid City development on the former Madison Square Mall site, is approximately 85% complete, Murphy said. We’re less than 70 days away from the amphitheater’s first-ever concert, a May 7 fundraiser at Huntsville Hospital featuring country singer Jake Owen. This aforementioned Epic First Waltz Weekend is scheduled for May 13-15.

The current phase of construction includes the acoustic treatment of the stage, the backstage interiors and the facade concessions. Over the next few weeks, wooden benches will be installed in the amphitheater bowl. “And then,” Murphy says in his rambling rasp, “they really start doing a lot of landscaping and perimeters and finishing touches as we ‘push’ it through to May 7.”

When it comes to tickets to Orion concerts, there were early accumulations of artists with overlapping fanbases going on sale on the same day and at the same time – forcing fans, already facing tighter budgets due to inflation, to make tough decisions on which tickets to dive for. Murphy says many markets are experiencing this piling up of online sales. “And that has a lot to do with everyone turning the tap back on, turning the machine back on and everyone hitting the road.” He thinks the flow of on-sale dates will stabilize soon.

As the touring industry kicks back into high gear after being curtailed to varying degrees over the past two years by the pandemic, booking is extremely competitive right now, Murphy says. Still, Orion was able to land tours from artists who had never played Huntsville before, including Jack White and Dave Matthews Band. This is partly due to the vast relationships and experience of Venue Group staff in the industry. And then there’s the buzz around Orion, which has been covered by outlets like Rolling Stone.

Murphy predicts that Orion will host at least 24 concert-level events in its first year. He thinks that number will jump to between 30 and 40 in 2023, which will be Orion’s second year of operation, but the first full year. Already, about 20 artists have arranged dates for the 2023 concerts at Orion, Murphy says.

Some of those sophomore acts will be bands who wanted to perform in the new amphitheater this year, but the schedule didn’t work out. For example, a certain popular jam band was about to play Orion in 2022, but after scheduling grunts, that same band plans to come to Orion in 23.

As previously reported, a new city park called Apollo Park will be built around Orion, both named to reflect Huntsville’s rich aerospace heritage. The surrounding area closest to the amphitheater will be called Apollo South. Originally called the site’s “food village”, Apollo South will offer a variety of food items as well as a pavilion, smaller performance area, art installations and other features.

Some of Apollo South’s approximately 10 food concepts will be permanent restaurants. Others will be interchangeable, like food trucks and other street vendors. Apollo South’s food will have a strong focus on local and regional, although the exact mix of businesses is still being finalized.

Inside the Orion Amphitheater there will be around a dozen food/drink options, with a local/regional focus more on the drinks side. “We work with a lot of local breweries,” says Murphy, “and they’ll have everything high-end people want as well.”

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