Words and Photos by Ken Billett
Along a tree-lined brick sidewalk, a stylized Darth Vader loomed over R2-D2, both metal sculptures securely bolted to an entryway. Right across the street, Robert Johnson’s smiling likeness adorned the gray awning of Moe’s Original Bar B Que. After a couple of craft beers at the nearby Casual Pint, we’ve decided on pizza for dinner versus barbecue, so we stepped past Lord Vader and headed inside a Mellow Mushroom.
Once inside, we’re greeted by the friendly staff. Behind the hostess stand was a huge planetary mural painted that funky Mellow Mushroom style. To our left, Han Solo hung from the wall, encased in carbonite, with what appeared to be an orangey boutonniere affixed to his spacesuit.
Located in the heart of the Village of Providence, this Mellow Mushroom’s theme is outer space, which is only appropriate since we were in Rocket City USA, aka Huntsville, Alabama. Right above our table, Mel, the pizza company’s ubiquitous mascot, rode atop a rocket ship. We munched on our favorite Mellow pie, Wild in Havana, essentially a Cuban sandwich pizza.
Being from Tampa, Florida, any Cuban-inspired food is always good with me.
We’ve only been in Huntsville for a few hours and we’re loving what we’ve experienced, so far: a craft beer spot across the street from our hotel, a blues-themed barbecue joint nearby, and, of course, delicious, spicy pizza.
“I could get used to this,” I said in between bites.
Vicki smiled. “You mean good beer and great pizza?”
I laughed. “No, this location. All of this stuff within walking distance of our hotel.”
“Along with good beer and great pizza.”
“Funny.” I took another bite.
No, delicious pizza…and good beer.
Village of Providence
Our short weekend getaway was planned months ago, after Indie Rock titans The Black Keys announced their Dropout Boogie Tour. We’ve been on a mission to see the Keys for the past several years, but vacation conflicts and COVID side-lined our efforts. Catching The Black Keys live became another must-do on our bucket list—a list that has grown shorter after we saw the Rolling Stones in concert last year in St. Louis.
We chose the Huntsville date (August 28th) for several reasons: Huntsville’s a relatively stress-free drive (less than four hours from Memphis on U.S. 72), a city we’ve never visited before, other than on those sixth-grade field trips to the Space Center, and it has a somewhat intimate outdoor concert venue—outside, even in late August, being a preference in our pandemic-saturated world.
Located just two miles from that outdoor venue, Vicki found a nice Homewood Suites tucked away in the Village of Providence, a mixed-use neighborhood development that incorporates pedestrian-friendly accessibility, natural resources, and urban-style living, along with charming residential streets featuring traditional-looking single-family homes.
Think Harbor Town mixed with Overton Square, along with parts of the Edge District and add a dash of South Main. All in one spot.
I definitely could get used to this.
Huntsville is home to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. In the 1950s, the government’s rocket development program—rockets that eventually carried American astronauts to the moon—started in Huntsville. Today, you can visit the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, the world’s largest space museum, located right off of Interstate 565. Within the Space Center, is the popular Space Camp, a place where students, and adults, can learn just about everything there is to know about aviation and space travel.
With a short window of time, we only explored a few spots in and around greater Huntsville. The MidCity District, a mixed-use retail center still under development, was only a short drive from our hotel and adjacent to the concert venue. While this area had most of your typical big box retailers and huge sports bars, it also incorporated walkability and accessibility.
Think the Wolfchase Galleria area but more up-to-date and prettier.
We took a short drive over to Madison, a small bedroom-type community next to Huntsville. Madison’s quaint downtown basically grew up around the railroad depot. Located in downtown Madison was Old Black Bear Brewing Company, likely my new most favorite place for a return visit. Old Black Bear, popular with the locals for both beer and food, was hopping on a late Sunday morning.
Definitely a must-do when you visit Huntsville.
Standing nearly at floor level, I scanned the top of The Orion Amphitheater, an 8,000-person concert venue located at one edge of the MidCity District. Thinking to myself this might be how gladiators felt in ancient Rome, I’m impressed with the coliseum-style design and the venue’s clear sight lines, offering a great view for all concertgoers. The Orion’s operation was run like a small village with a terrific, helpful staff, great food truck choices, credit card-only payment options, and plenty of restrooms.
Other than the late August heat and an unannounced rain shower, the Orion was a great place to enjoy live music.
Speaking of live music, The Black Keys were one of those groups that I’m certain never disappoint. Raw and edgy, smooth and cool…the Keys simply came out on stage and did their thing. Obviously, the Ohio duo’s commercial success and huge following meant they could easily fill small and medium-sized arenas.
I believe that’s where The Black Keys enjoy performing—smaller and more intimate settings. You could argue that an 8,000-capacity amphitheater was not intimate, but, compared with a 70,000-seat football stadium, the Orion felt just right.
The Keys’ set list was terrific—after all most folks know their hit songs—and included a great tribute to those Delta Bluesmen from long ago, with several songs from their Delta Kream album.
A little soggy and groggy from last night’s concert, Vicki and I packed-up for our return drive to Memphis. On my phone’s Spotify app, I found a Black Key’s playlist, so we rocked out while getting our things organized. Leftover Mellow Mushroom pizza was packed away in our cooler and rain ponchos were dried out and re-stored in the trunk. From our room window, I looked out over the hotel’s parking lot and the Village of Providence’s mixed-use buildings with a tree-lined neighborhood street just a short walk away.
Yeah, I could get used to this.
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and the newest, Get out of Town as, ongoing features here on StoryBoard.