Hitsville, USA

Hitsville, USA

Birmingham venues add soul to the Magic City’s robust music scene

On a small stretch of the historic 41st Street South, lies two of Birmingham’s most prestigious concert venues. One venue is a hidden indie crawl  teeming with nostalgia, a cozy bar complemented by neon and underground acts. The other is vastly different, a sprawling biergarten with plenty of big-name acts and a corporate feel. Despite the differences between Saturn and Avondale, both have established themselves as Birmingham staples that are on the cutting edge of music entertainment and hospitality and make the Magic City the place to be for new music.

Let’s begin with the little guy. Upon first walking down the block towards Saturn, clashing colors mark the way. The logo’s gray façade might remind you of Disney World’s Space Mountain. After a few paces, you meet the entrance, marked by two orange doors and a globe with arrows pointing you to the adventure that awaits. The space is overwhelming: popping neon colors, screens playing b-horror movies, a rocket on the ceiling and video games galore. The sounds of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone are undercut by Hollywood Hogan and Sting duking it out on WCW vs. nWo: World Tour on the Nintendo 64. Drip coffee is brewed whilst the sounds of Elliott Smith’s debut album scream from a blown-out speaker. It’s a million different aesthetics at once, and we haven’t even entered the actual venue yet.

When you walk into a concert at Saturn, you are immediately greeted by a merchandise tent on your right. There is a bevy of offerings depending on the concert that day, from a Fury in Few t-shirt to an “I Still Hate Coldplay” parody hat from a post-punk band. It’s an eclectic cavalcade of hats and shirts galore, and you truly never know what you’re going to buy when you walk in. The pit itself is quaint but allows plenty of space for maximum dancing. The acts who roll in to Saturn vary, but they normally come from the indie music scene. From Yo La Tengo to The Beths, DEHD to Wednesday, expect your favorite music critic’s favorite underground band to make an appearance between Saturn’s walls. Despite the unique appeal of Saturn, its size can make it hard to market to those in and outside of Birmingham. Sloane Haddock, the marketing coordinator at Saturn, plays a huge role in promoting the venue’s indie identity. Haddock joined Saturn in 2018.

“I needed some daytime work while I was freelancing, and I jumped in here (Saturn). I had a passion for music, and I already loved this place, so it was a great fit,” Haddock said.

Saturn opened in May of 2015. Founded by Brian Teasley, the 500-cap venue was founded, according to Haddock, “out of a desire for hospitality centered towards the bands rather than the customers. He (Teasley) wanted the customers to have a great time, but he wanted the bands to come here and rest.”

Rest for bands is easy to come by at Saturn. With an expansive green room that previously functioned as an Airbnb apartment, board games and video games galore and its quaint, space-age surf-rock aesthetic, Saturn is a musician’s utopia to relax and escape the grind of touring.

However, the bands don’t rest when they are onstage. Saturn’s small space provides musicians an intimate opportunity to be close and personal with their fans. Acoustic, warm sets from Penny and Sparrow invite you in like a warm blanket on a fall day. Surf-punk bands like Daikaiju turn the small space into a noise explosion. And dance parties set to the tune of ABBA and Taylor Swift via disc jockeys turn the venue into disco glitterati.

“The aesthetic definitely hits you when you walk in. One of the intended effects we from our layout is that you discover something new every time,” Haddock said.

Saturn has provided hours of entertainment from the bands they bring in to the amenities they offer and is genuinely a Birmingham staple worth your time and attention. Saturn continues to stand up for the little guys, the weird and the wonderful, the bands that haven’t yet found a voice on the big stages. But don’t worry: give bands like Wednesday and Penny and Sparrow time to have their fun at Saturn, and sooner or later, they’ll be performing right across the street.

Compared to the quaint hipster’s metropolis of Saturn, Avondale seems like a polar opposite. The sprawling outdoor venue is a wide-open space, with a monstrous stage and some of the biggest acts to ever roll through Birmingham, from jam band titans Goose to dream pop icons Beach House.

Taylor Lander serves as venue manager at Avondale Brewing Company. 

“Avondale kind of kicked off the revitalization of this whole neighborhood”, Lander said. “We turned a street full of abandoned buildings and gas stations into a vibrant area.” Historically, Avondale was a company town built around Avondale Mills, a textile manufacturer. Now, thanks to venues like Avondale and Saturn, it’s become the entertainment hub for the city of Birmingham.

“There’s no one else really anywhere close to here that has a venue like this. It’s a park/backyard with a bar and a big stage. We’re campy, we don’t like to fancy it up too much,” said Lander.

When you walk into the front doors, Avondale appears to be a simple taproom, but creep  to the backyard, and you’ll find, in the words of the Chicks, wide open spaces, with a monstrous stage and a grassy courtyard. This size, Lander believes, makes Avondale a draw for bands that venues like Saturn are unable to book.

“Being in the heart of town and our size, especially for an outdoor venue, makes us the spot to go to for the musical experience,” Lander said. “I’ve been able to see a lot of bands that I normally would never listen to. I may not love their music, but to experience the crowds these big bands bring is incredible and awesome.”

The juxtaposition between bands on a given week at Avondale is jarring. The first week of November 2023 looked like this: indie rock darlings, The Brook and the Bluff, local legends known for hits like “Halfway Up,” starred on the main stage on Nov. 2. Think of their crowd as a mishmash of hipster adults who play mandolin as a hobby and are dying to tell you about their new favorite self-help podcast mixed with college students wearing vintage Radiohead shirts on their first dates. Only three nights later, rap icon Lil Uzi Vert brought his unique trap-meets-pop-punk aesthetic to Avondale, with a crowd of rap diehards, emo girls and parents dragged along by their prepubescent tweens who found Uzi on TikTok. Fans were lucky to make it out of the moshpit alive.

One of Lander’s favorite parts of Avondale is the acts who return to the stage. “Getting to know these bands as they come multiple times, and to watch them grow, is a ton of fun. You feel like they’re your babies. The bands that come through truly feel like a part of your family,” Lander said.

Overall, Saturn and Avondale each bring something unique to the table in the Birmingham music scene. From a quaint venue with a Space Age meets B-movie feel to a massive musical biergarten, the two could not be more different but still serve the same purpose: to bring the best acts to Birmingham and create a unique concert experience.