Photo shows underneath the bridge, with a band playing in the distance at the base of an arch, with trees on the sides of the arch. Clouds in the sky are pink from the setting sun.

Concerts at Echo Bridge commence two hours before sunset. Photo by Justin Parr.

Set on the San Antonio River, where live oak, pecan, mesquite, and willow trees line the banks and create a shady, bucolic scene, Echo Bridge in San Antonio is the coolest music venue in Texas you’ve never heard of.

And the acoustics are close to perfect.

The space’s unique location is the underside of an old concrete bridge built 88 years ago. Musicians perform on a concrete platform at the base of a bridge arch on one bank of the river, while audience members sit or stand on the concrete slab across the river, at the base of the bridge on the south bank.

It’s an exclusive space—no more than 100 tickets are sold. And you have to hunt down information about shows, which are staged late Sunday afternoon, two hours before sunset. Ticket prices depend on the act and range from $15 to $25. The music is sublime and varied, with artists from all genres scoring coveted concert slots.

The Mrs. Frank W. Sorrell Bridge (aka the Roosevelt Avenue Bridge) on Spur 536 was not intended to be a performance space when it was finished in 1935. Its architectural details, inspired by the nearby San Jose Mission, feature a concrete closed-spandrel deck arch that creates near-perfect acoustics.

Around the early to mid-1990s, as the Mission Trail hike-and-bike route was being conceived and developed, people passing by the bridge noticed reflective sounds carried from one base of the arch across to the other. Cue hand-clapping, shouting, singing, and other forms of noise.

Justin Parr, one-half of the Echo Bridge Appreciation Society that produces the events, discovered the bridge 20 years ago, after a longtime South Sider hipped him to the new bike trail. Parr began to enjoy midnight bicycle rides on the Mission Trail from his King William residence, grabbing a bite at Taqueria Guadalajara which stayed open late, then retreating to the nearby bridge to eat and drink beer with his cycling pals.

“After we were full of tacos, we’d go, “Whoo-hoo,” make a bunch of noise, beat on stuff,” he says, while giving me a tour of the place on a late-spring afternoon.

The sound under the bridge was exceptional.

Parr, a glass blower and owner of the Fl!ght Gallery at Blue Star, moved to historic Hot Wells, first as caretaker and now as creative director at recently opened Camp Hot Wells. In March 2019, he hosted a pop-up event called Fl!ght Camp, a combination party and campout at Hot Wells for other art gallery owners in San Antonio.

A crowd of 100 ticket holders get to watch the concerts held on Sundays. Photo by Justin Parr.

At midnight, Parr and guests rode bikes and walked to Echo Bridge, a little more than a mile away. Greeting them was a pianist playing an upright piano at the base of one end of the bridge’s arch. The small group gathered at the opposite base of the arch could hear every single note.

Jeff Wheeler, a visual artist and owner of Space C7 gallery inside the South Side Living & Maker Spaces complex near the bridge, was blown away. “It was a beautiful classical music concert under the bridge,” he says. “The setting with the river was gorgeous. That’s when I became aware of the acoustics.”

Wheeler suggested to Parr that they bring bands to play under the bridge. “We knew we wanted to do it if for no other reason than trying to talk some musicians into playing under there so we could hear them,” Wheeler says. “Do some music, tell some friends, see what happens.”

They talked about it for a year before taking action in the middle of the COVID outbreak. “Nobody had anything else to do,” Wheeler says. “It was the perfect time. You couldn’t go to clubs, but you could go outside. The band wouldn’t have to get close to anybody. We painted pods so people could bring two friends with 10 feet between each pod.”

They started telling friends and spreading the word through the Echo Bridge Appreciation Society Instagram account.

Erik Sanden, the lead singer for the San Antonio art rock band Buttercup, headlined the first show on March 21, 2021, accompanied by Claire Rousay (stylized as claire rousay), a percussionist and experimental composer.

By July 25, the society was four concerts in—then the police showed up. Grupo Tan Tan, a spinoff of the San Antonio conjunto punk band Pinata Protest, was setting up when the event was shut down. The show was unlicensed and therefore illegal, the police informed Parr and Wheeler.

But in a matter of days, San Antonio River Authority reached out to Parr and Wheeler and soon granted them a special permit to stage music under Echo Bridge. “They made a permit where there was none,” Wheeler says.

The society and river authority are partners now. “[The Echo Bridge Appreciation Society concerts] are a wonderful and unique way to engage with the community, and a different way to enjoy the river,” says San Antonio River Authority public affairs manager Katye Brought.

Tandem, the coffee shop/bar at the north end of the bridge, functions as the concessionaire. Concertgoers can park in the shop’s lot, buy their food and drinks, and walk the dirt path down to the bridge.

Echo Bridge has been described as the Arneson River Theatre of the South Side, but really bears no comparison to the Riverwalk amphitheater built by the Works Progress Administration in the early 1940s. “This is really lo-fi,” Wheeler says. “You walk down under a bridge, and there you are.”

Despite its lo-fi vibe, the venue still impresses musicians. “It’s cosmic acoustics and an artsy crowd of painters, mixed media nerds, photographers, and poets, a side of San Antonio I’ve never seen before but was happy to meet and dive into,” says Bob Livingston, who played the bridge for a second time in May.

“Someone said it sounds like the Bass Concert Hall,” Parr says, his voice echoing across the river as he stood under the bridge.

The vibe is puro DIY. It’s a natural area with the only infrastructure being the bridge. Access to the music isn’t easy. The actual bridge lacks a walkway, meaning one drives across or risks getting hit, a problem being addressed by construction of an adjacent pedestrian bridge just upriver.

Once you’ve arrived, you’re in for a special concert experience, and you don’t have to be a fan of the artist to appreciate it. “We try to curate this into something worth seeing even if you don’t recognize the music or the musician,” Parr says.

Coming up next at Echo Bridge is John Doe, the singer-songwriter, poet, and actor who founded Los Angeles punk band X in th 1980s and now lives in Austin. He takes over the concrete stage on June 4.

Information and updates about Echo Bridge events are on the Echo Bridge Appreciation Society’s Instagram account. To get on the Echo Bridge Appreciation Society mailing list, email [email protected]

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