New Huntsville music venue opening soon, first show already sold-out

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On Tuesday, John Chamness was listening to his daughter play piano when a noise from his phone let him know he had a new email. His first thought was, “What else do they need now?”

For the past 15 months or more, Chamness and friend Evan Billiter have been working towards opening their own music venue, St. Stephens Music Hall, in Huntsville. Yes, the Grateful Dead song “St. Stephen” inspired the name. But no apostrophe on “Stephens” in this case.

Chamness and Billiter had jumped through the many hoops required to start a venue. They jumped through some hoops more than once — we’ll get to that in a minute.

This new email was from the Alabama ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) Board. They’d approved St. Stephens’ liquor license. It was the last box to check before Chamness and Billiter could finally open their place.

Chamness told his daughter the news. “Then we started high-fiving each other and jumping up and down,” he says.

St. Stephens Music Hall

St. Stephens Music Hall. (Matt Wake/[email protected])Matt Wake

St. Stephens Music Hall is located at dining/nightlife hub Campus No. 805 in a space formerly home to Offbeat Coffee Studio, address 2620 Clinton Avenue. Chamness and Billiter have turned it into a vibey room from go. Decades of old band photos and flyers and assorted funky objects adorn the walls.

A raised stage takes up 180 of St. Stephen’s 1,110 total square-feet. Official capacity is 80. The atmosphere and coziness intentionally echo Huntsville’s beloved, bygone Kaffeeklatsch Bar.

Artist-wise at St. Stephens, Billiter — who booked Lowe Mill’s Concerts on the Dock for six years and was a founder of that popular local series – is focused on original music. With an emphasis on up-and-coming touring bands. Acts you can’t catch every week here.

“I want people to realize,” Billiter says, “this is a venue. Even if it looks like a bar, we are treating it like a venue. And to me, a big difference between a venue and a bar that has music is usually you have ticket prices or cover [charges]. It also means you bring in bands from out of town. You have to charge for those. There are so many options for free music in Huntsville – and I’m not saying it’s not a good thing — but that is one of the things that’s going to set us apart. There are enough people in Huntsville who are true music lovers, in that they are willing to invest in music”

St. Stephens Music Hall

St. Stephens Music Hall. (Matt Wake/[email protected])Matt Wake

St. Stephens’ initial calendar boasts Firewater Tent Revival, a freaky folk outfit from Florida, on April 5. Twangy troubadour Webb Wilder, based in Nashville, is set for an April 13 show.

Even before that, St. Stephens will be open and rocking. The venue’s first-ever show is a record-release party Saturday for local band Shane Davis Group’s debut EP “Concerning Comfort.” Tracks from that four-song EP, including standouts “Love You Found” and “Pecos,” take inspiration from classic-rock, jam-bands and folk rogues. Silver Silos, a rootsy Huntsville combo with songs peppered with lap-steel and sax, are the opening act Saturday at St. Stephen. Doors open at 7 p.m. and showtime’s 8.

By Thursday, the $10 tickets had already sold-out. Davis — who’s 33, longhaired, soft-spoken and plays a Gibson Les Paul guitar – says “it’s amazing” to have a new originals-focused Huntsville venue.

The city’s had somewhat of a void thereof since SideTracks Music Hall shuttered in 2022. An attempt to reboot locally legendary Tip Top Café has been gestating since 2016. But that now seems at best at impasse and at worst doubtful. The group that runs Orion Amphitheater, tvg hospitality, has pushed back their planned 350-capacity Meridian Arts Club thrice. It still doesn’t appear to close to opening.

“I really appreciate places like St. Stephens,” Davis says, “that want to showcase all the original talent that Huntsville and the surrounding areas have.”

In addition to local spots like the Sports Page Lounge & Deli, Shane Davis Group also plays shows in Birmingham and Georgia. They recorded a 2023 live album, titled “Full Tilt,” in Opelika.

Although his St. Stephens bow is sold-out, Davis says, “They’re planning on having the windows open, so you might be able to hang out on the lawn near the windows and listen.” Out front, the venue has a few café tables and chairs set up.

Shane Davis Group

Huntsville musician Shane Davis of the Shane Davis Group. (Courtesy Tawny Hillis)Tawny Hillis

St. Stephens’ originally planned location, — in a small, former church building on Stokes Street — didn’t work out. There was a misunderstanding about zoning requirements. Chamness, who works in real estate, says the original location, located not far from the Stovehouse dining, retail and live music development, met the requirements he’d read online. But those posted requirements hadn’t been updated with a 2022 change that made them more extensive, he says.

It was heartbreaking news. In addition to paying rent, utilities, insurance, etc. for 11 months at the Stokes Street building, Chamness and Billiter had poured their sweat and souls into making it their field of dreams.

St. Stephens Music Hall

St. Stephens Music Hall owners John Chamness and Evan Billiter at the venue’s originally planned location on Stokes Street. (Courtesy John Chamness)

Back to the drawing board, Chamness and Billiter, who met at a music festival in Florida years ago, moved their new project to Campus No. 805, which anchored by breweries Yellowhammer and Straight to Ale and service-industry watering-hole Lone Goose Saloon. T

hey didn’t look at any other possible locations, Billiter says. It took Billiter a couple of truckloads to move everything from Stokes Street to 805.

This is a much better location. Campus No. 805 is well-known, with lots of foot traffic between its various businesses, compared to the standalone Stokes Street building. There’s ample well-lit and paved parking already there at 805, compared to Stokes Street’s gravel lot and semi-dodgy surroundings.

The square footage was double at Stokes Street and the interior was a more desirable mini-theater layout. Yet, the capacity would’ve been the same as it is at Campus No. 805. They were able to move most of the stage they built at Stokes Street over to 805, too.

The biggest drawback of the move, facility wise, is the loss of the stage-adjacent greenroom Chamness and Billiter set up at Stokes Street. A greenroom, which gives artists a private space before and after shows, is a feature many touring acts are used to. The work around at the new location? Chamness and Billiter are building a curtaining system that encircles the stage completely when closed.

St. Stephens Music Hall

St. Stephens Music Hall. (Matt Wake/[email protected])Matt Wake

The move to Campus No. 805 came with an unexpected perk. There’s a little used, 150-seat auditorium, from 805′s former life as Stone Middle School, right next door to St. Stephens, which St. Stephens can rent for shows that need a little more capacity.

Each week, Billiter plans on having live music Wednesday through Saturday. Wednesdays will be the one night with free admission and will feature local singer/songwriters onstage. “If it’s money thing, and you can’t afford it [tickets or cover charges], that’s fine,” Billiter says. “Come on Wednesday and enjoy yourself and see the place.” As was always the plan to help lower overhead, Chamness and Billiter will be St. Stephens’ only employees at first.

Originally, a late 2023 opening was planned for St. Stephens. After that line passed and while the venue was in limbo, Chamness was struck by “all the love and support from the community.”

Chamness says, “From the people at the city of Huntsville who helped with my ignorance, and the licensing department people at ABC they were so kind. And just how many people have reached out and said, man, we’re pulling for you guys. It’s been unreal.”

St. Stephens Music Hal

Co-owner Evan Billiter at St. Stephens Music Hall. (Matt Wake/[email protected])Matt Wake

Leading up to Saturday, Chamness and Billiter are anticipating a fistful of firsts. Announcing the first band. Pouring the first drink. Seeing the room they filled for the first time with people getting lost in live music.

Old Crow Medicine Show played the Orion two years ago,” Chamness says, referring to that Grammy-winning Americana band. “Well, the first time they played Huntsville they played the Kaffeeklatsch. I don’t feel like anybody in Huntsville [venues] right now is looking for guys like that, who are running around the country in an old van trying to make until they do make it. I have a feeling in 10 years there’s gonna be a lot of bands who play Orion that you go, ‘Man, I remember the first time I saw them play in Huntsville it was at St. Stephens.”

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