The present and the future seem so beautiful that it is easy to forget the diamonds in the dust. But at the time, an impressive number of music legends were performing in Huntsville, Alabama. Long before, this once corny tertiary market was trendy, semi-cool or whatever today.
With the new Orion Amphitheater booming and the legendary Von Braun Center booming, there are upcoming shows that will be buzzing down the line.
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But let’s appreciate the roots. Below is a list of 12 classic Huntsville concerts. For the purposes of this list, I stuck with bigger shows. Thousands of people, not hundreds. So none of those transcendent gigs from Tip Top, Kaffeeklatsch, Crossroads and other legendary hole-in-the-wall (as much as we loved them) are listed. I also stuck to gigs for at least 15 years and back.
Of course, these 12 gigs aren’t the only legitimately classic ones to ever take place in Huntsville. This list is meant to spark conversations, not food fights. Think of the 15 concerts below as a starting point and explore from there.
Prince, 1983, Von Braun Civic Center
March 11, 1983 was probably the most impressive Friday night ever in Huntsville. That’s when 9,599 lucky revelers got to see Prince and The Revolution throw themselves into the Von Braun Civic Center. (The Huntsville arena would later be known simply as the Von Braun Center.) In 1983, Prince was on tour behind his “1999” album. Setlists for this tour included the jubilant title track and neon ballad “Little Red Corvette”, and earlier jams like “Controversy”. The opening acts of the “1999 Tour” were also very hot, The Time and Vanity 6. Tickets were $11.
Taylor Swift, 2007, Big Spring Jam
These days, she is one of the most famous people on the planet. In 2007, Taylor Swift was a talented 17-year-old with a hot debut album, ambition, and a work ethic. That year, she performed at the Big Spring Jam. Now defunct, from the mid-90s to the early 2010s, BSJ was Huntsville’s large-scale, multi-day music festival, which featured artists ranging from the Allman Brothers to Destiny’s Child to Al Green and Huntsville . For Swift’s Big Spring Jam performance in 2007, an estimated crowd of 25,000 gathered outside the stage at the corner of Williams Avenue and Church Street downtown. A large percentage of them were teenage girls who were there to hear his songs from his 2006 self-titled album. Hits like “Tim McGraw”, “Teardrops on My Guitar” and “Our Song”. According to an industry pro who has worked closely with Big Spring Jam, the festival booked Swift for just $1,000 for an hour-long set. Two years later, Swift’s stadium tour was bringing in millions per show on ticket sales alone.
Van Halen, 1980, Von Braun Civic Center
Unlike ’70s juggernauts The Stones and Led Zeppelin, top ’80s rockers frequently included tertiary markets in their tours. For example, Van Halen’s classic lineup, David Lee Roth, played at the Von Braun Civic Center in 1980, 1981, and 1982. In 1980, Van Halen was on tour behind their third album, “Women and Children First.” This album included Tarzan’s rock classics “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “And the Cradle Will Rock…” Tickets were about eight dollars for the ’80 VBCC show. A young local guitarist by the name of Dave Anderson, who went to rock stadiums with Brother Cane in the 90s, saw the Van Halen gigs of the 80s and 82s in Huntsville. “They were both amazing,” Anderson told me in 2020. “But they were meaner in 80 and hungrier.” It was also Van Halen’s best-selling show in Huntsville, with 8,245 viewers. Curiously in 1986, Van Halen’s first tour after replacing Roth with Sammy Hagar, made 6,524 at the VBCC. A few months later, Roth’s first major solo tour beat his old combo, with an attendance of 6,544.
Billy Idol, 1984, Spragins Hall
“Rebellious cry”? Shit yeah. And God bless the student government association at the University of Alabama in 1984 in Huntsville. On May 19 of that year, the UAH SGA presented a concert by punk-pop star Billy Idol. The show took place at the college’s basketball gymnasium, Spragins Hall. Tickets were $8. Wyatt Akins was a student at Lee High School at the time. Akins was thrilled to see Idol perform, as he was a huge fan of his pre-solo punk band Generation X. “A member of Generation X being in Huntsville, I thought that was really cool,” he told me. Akins recently. “They were one of my favorites.” Akins recalls that the UAH crowd for Billy Idol was a mix of high school and college students. There was a “Billy Idol lookalike contest” held before the show, and the lead singer of local band Akins, called Dead Pigeons, won the contest and entered for free that night. At the time, Idol was one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Music videos for his songs “Rebel Yell” and “Eyes Without a Face” were all over MTV.
Foo Fighters, 1997, Big Spring Jam
The stage was on a gravel parking lot. At the 1997 Big Spring Jam festival in Huntsville, Foo Fighters had a dynamic new drummer with them named Taylor Hawkins, formerly with Alanis Morrissette. Playing drums for the new band of the best drummer of the decade, former Nirvana percussionist Dave Grohl, was not a gig for the humble. But Hawkins thrived. His game was big but nuanced. Hawkins, blond and lithe, was a star — that night and always — behind the drums. At some point during Foo’s Big Spring Jam set, Grohl, who led most of the show on guitar and vocals, joined Hawkins on a second drum kit. The group was on tour with their second album “The Color and the Shape”. The ensemble’s songs now included the classics “My Hero”, “Big Me” and “Everlong”. And 25 years later, Huntsville can say the great Taylor Hawkins, who tragically passed away in 2022, laid down some of his beats here.
Deep Purple, 1972, Madison County Coliseum
Prior to 1975 from the Von Braun Civic Center, many Huntsville concerts were held at the Madison County Coliseum. ZZ Top played at the Colosseum early in his career. In the 1960s, icons like James Brown and Sonny & Cher performed there. Occasionally concerts in Huntsville have also been held at Milton Frank Stadium, where the Alabama A&M football team has played home games. Milton Frank shows include artists like 70s hitmakers like Three Dog Night and The Guess Who. At the Madison County Coliseum, a sweet poster from March 23, 1972 featured Buddy Miles (the former drummer of Jimi Hendrix, known for his solo hit “Them Changes”) and Nazareth (the future blooze-rockers of “Love Hurts”) . The headliner? British proto-metal legends Deep Purple. Purple had just released their masterful album “Machine Head”, loaded with bombs like “Space Truckin'” and “Highway Star”. And a little song with a pretty decent guitar riff called “Smoke on the Water”.
Funkadelic, 1978, Von Braun Center
Funkadelic is one of the most influential bands to ever exist. Their space-funk paved the way for the best rap music to follow in the decades to come, not to mention inspiring Prince and other guitar greats. Prior to Funkadelic’s VBCC show in 1978, the sprawling band’s Mothership landed at the US Space & Rocket Center. That night at VBCC, opening acts included Bar Kays and Cameo lit the fuse for Funkadelic’s set. A few months later, Funkadelic would release their must-have album “One Nation Under a Groove”.
Tina Turner, 1987, Von Braun Civic Center
After the comeback of the album “Private Dancer” in 1984, supreme soul belter Tina Turner was promoting a new album, “Break Every Rule”. His 1987 VBCC set included “Typical Male”, a number two single. In the VBCC setlist, there were also “Private Dancer” staples like “What’s Love Got to Do With It”. But it’s the covers that are fascinating. In addition to “Proud Mary,” which Ike and Tina Turner had made their own in 1970 with a gospel-boogie version, that night at VBCC Tina also performed Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” “The Acid Queen from The Who. “Help!” the Beatles and “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green. Wow.
Rush, 1979, Von Braun Civic Center
Tickets for Rush’s first ever show in Huntsville started at a princely price of $6.50. The Canadian prog-metal trio were on tour with their 1978 album “Hémisphères”, with the classic record “Fly By Night” and the concept opus “2112” also in their catalog at that time, among others. Glam metal pioneers The Godz got the ball rolling. The Rush setlist for this tour included gems like “Working Man”, “Closer to the Heart” and the entire first side of “2112”. And of course, a drum solo from The Professor himself, Neil Peart. If there was ever a rock concert tuned to Huntsville’s aerospace engineer backbone, it was ’79 Rush.
Heart, 1977, Von Braun Civic Center
“Aw, Barracuda!” Girl-fronted rock never sounded better than Heart. The Wilson sisters’ band first hit Huntsville in 1977. This tour’s setlists were augmented with recent hits like “Barracuda,” “Crazy On You,” and “Magic Man.” And the shows ended with a tear through a cover of “Rock and Roll,” by Led Zeppelin’s heartfelt touch. Attendance was approximately 7,600 people. Heart would return to the VBCC in 1978, 1980, 1982, 1983, and 1986. But 1977 was their Huntsville Valhalla.
Dolly Parton, 1978, Von Braun Civic Center
By 1978, Dolly Parton had transcended country music stardom. She was a superstar. Parton had previously composed country classics like “Jolene”, “I Will Always Love You” and “Coat of Many Colors”. His last album “Here You Come Again” went platinum and would later win a Grammy. Her talent and insight were responsible for the crossover success that stars like Shania Twain would follow. Blows, wigs, curves and charisma, Parton brought all that and more to his VBCC audience.
Elvis Presley, 1975, Von Braun Civic Center
Did you really think we would leave out the King of Rock and Roll? Elvis sold out five shows during his three-day stand in 1975 (held May 30, 31, and June 1), each attended by 8,738 people. The shows opened with a country version of “CC Rider.” They ended with the powerful ballad “Can’t Help Falling In Love”. The King’s sets also included early hits (“All Shook Up,” “Blue Suede Shoes”), awe-inspiring renditions (“American Trilogy”), and his final top 10 (“Burning Love” from 1972). Presley returned to Huntsville in 1976 for another sold-out VBCC race. But by then, according to some fan accounts, he was overweight, sweating profusely and forgetting words. A year later, the King was dead. But the memories of Presley’s heartbreaking music — and the epic 1975 stand in Huntsville — will never die.
Honorable mention (all Von Braun Civic Center): The Jacksons 1979, Tom Petty 1995, Johnny Cash 1975, Boys II Men 1995, Kiss 1976, Duran Duran 1993.