Birmingham’s Secret Stages a haven for undiscovered music

Jul 25, 2019

Atlanta-based psychedelic rock band Flamingo Shadow play to a packed house at 41st St. Pub & Aircraft Sales during 2018's Secret Stages festival.
Credit Alex AuBuchon / APR

(BIRMINGHAM, AL)-- Summertime means music festivals in Alabama and across the country.

The beach season kicked off with some of the world’s biggest musical acts at Hangout Music Fest in Gulf Shores back in May. Jazz and blues fans pay homage to W.C. Handy with a festival in Muscle Shoals each July. The biggest names in country gather in Cullman each June for Rock the South.

But in Birmingham, there’s one festival that does things a little differently. 

Mark Vernon and Peggy Russell are from Chattanooga, Tennessee and have been coming to Birmingham year after year for a truly unique musical experience.

“This is our fourth year. Fourth or fifth year."

What is it, exactly, that keeps them coming back?

“We like the fact that there are small, undiscovered bands – like, really undiscovered.“

“Yeah, the curating is great. They really do a great job of scanning the country and finding a wide genre of bands.”

Secret Stages bills itself as a “music discovery festival.” Most music festivals try to focus on attracting names you’ll recognize in one or two genres that will appeal to an audience.

The Secret Stages organizers, however, scour the country for the most promising up-and-coming bands across all genres. That variety is crucial to the festival’s mission, said cofounder and creative director Sam George.

“We want people to come down who have never been to a hip-hop show to go to a hip-hop show. We want people who have never been to see a metal show to go to see a metal show," he said. "And then if you don’t like it? Boom – hop out, go to the country show next door...That’s what we deliver on.”

George said this past year they made a big change to better facilitate that discovery process.

“We’d been downtown for seven years and down there, there was a big trek between First and Second Avenue. So this is the first year we’ve had all of our venues on one block, and we’re really excited about it," he said. "That thing where you can hop around and see multiple styles of music at multiple venues in a short period of time, it’s all facilitated by being on one intersection right here.”

Festival cofounder Jon Poor said the transition was surprisingly easy.

“There’s a lot of, just, existing infrastructure in this part of town and in the venues, so that makes it a lot easier," he said.

Poor said it helps that one of the venues in use, the Saturn, is regarded as one of the best rooms of its size in the country.

"I think definitely for the artists to have that kind of venue. And Avondale as well, the big stage, and they both have great green rooms. So that makes us look good," he said.

Pearl Charles, an Americana artist from Los Angeles, said the venue’s reputation preceded it.

“Everyone talks about the Saturn. As a touring musician, like, it’s kind of the spot," he said. "Everyone’s like ‘You’ve got to play there; you’ve got to stay there. They take such good care of you.'”

Walker Scott of the Birmingham-based band Captain Kudzu said he was especially pleased with the focus on central Alabama-based music in last year’s lineup.

“Looking at Secret Stages in the past, I feel like there has been, and this is all good, there has been a lot of artists that have not been based out of Birmingham, which is OK, because it’s a music discovery festival," he said. "But I feel like the addition of so many local artists has made Secret Stages as an event much more… poppin’.”

But it’s not all local acts, and not all indie rock, at Secret Stages. Sa-Roc is a rapper from Washington, D.C. who said she loved her festival experience.

“As I walk through, I hear the DJs performing, the energy is really live, and I love it. People are out here just having a good time," she said. "It’s a really feel-good energy.”

Americana artist Pearl Charles came all the way from Los Angeles to play. She said it wasn’t hard to decide to join the Secret Stages lineup.

“I played a show at SXSW where one of the promoters, or talent buyers, for this festival saw us play and asked us to be on the bill. And I love to play festivals and I love to be on tour, so we said yes before I even knew who else was playing or anything. And then I saw that Ruby Boots and Courtney Marie Andrews were also playing, so I was really stoked about the amazing curation," she said.

And after coming to the festival, Charles said there’s one important thing organizers got right.

“They take really good care of the artists and that makes a huge difference for us wanting to come back, and having a good impression of the city,” she said.

Chris McCauley, a Birmingham-based musician and talent scout for the festival, said it can be a great resource for newer or lesser-known local bands in a few ways.

“If you’re a Birmingham-based band and you’re playing this, one is you may potentially get to play to a new audience. Because people are here to discover, hence the name, discover music," he said. "Hopefully you’ll have new people hearing your music here in town that will come out to your shows in the future.”

McCauley said another potential benefit is that bands from out of town will hear local acts and develop a relationship, perhaps inviting them to open on area shows or even tour with them.

“Last night, for instance, I saw a band play and they said they saw four Birmingham bands that they really loved, and all of those bands were in the crowd for their set. So your hope would be that those bands maybe get a chance to play together in other cities later on down the road," he said.

In terms of Secret Stages success stories, there are none bigger than St. Paul and the Broken Bones. The group played their first-ever show together at the 2012 iteration of the festival. Now the soul outfit has released three full-length albums, toured worldwide and enjoyed widespread acclaim.

This year, there’s a new slate of more than 50 up-and-coming bands and artists from across the country and across the musical spectrum.

“We want to give you that feeling of when you discover that new band that you’re really excited about," founder George said. "We want to deliver the live music experience of that feeling.”

If that’s a feeling you like, don’t miss out. Secret Stages takes place August 2 and 3 in the Avondale neighborhood in Birmingham.

Tickets are available now at secretstages.net.