Two hundred people sat waiting in the dampness of an underground cavern, the dark illuminated by a set of concert lights that turned the limestone walls and ceiling into an indoor rainbow of sorts. In the center of a man-made stage set up on the smooth cavern floor was a microphone stand, waiting as well for the first concert ever held below ground at Natural Bridge Caverns.
Located just north of San Antonio, the largest cave in Texas has always been a favorite tourist spot for fans of underground natural wonders and adventure tours. But on Aug. 18, live music became part of the cavern’s more than 50-year-old story when the public was introduced to its new space, the Hidden Wonders Underground Ballroom, a round room within the limestone caves that will be used for the new series of concerts.
If you enjoy your rock concerts mythic, the first music performance was satisfyingly epic. Christening the stage was Monte Montgomery, an Austin musician once named one of the Top 50 guitar players of all time by Guitar Player magazine. To see this guitar god perform, the limited audience of 200 journeyed past the welcome center, across a bridge, along a lengthy walk in 105-degree heat, and through a tunnel on an 11-degree incline that leads down and down and down into the performance space. (Not to worry, weary travelers: alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, and water are available before the descent.)
Inside the round room, made in what was known as the Hidden Cavern, the audience was treated to a 90-minute solo set of love songs, anthems, and a few clever covers on his acoustic guitar. There were songs any fan of the singer-songwriter would recognize including “Wishing Well,” “When Will I,” “Come Away,” and a cover of “Sara Smile,” a song the musician has played with its authors, Hall and Oates.
Concerts in the Cavern
Natural Bridge Caverns
26495 Natural Bridge Caverns Road,
Ticket price: $67.99
Montgomery’s guitar solos are legendary among guitar fans, and the room’s acoustics added depth to their sound without too much bass. The crispness of Montgomery’s guitar could be heard even if his lyrics and in-between-song patter sounded a little muddy at first. Some quick adjustments helped get the sound mix up to speed and the musician charmed the audience with commentary on the venue’s humidity. “It’s a little damp. Maybe that’s helping. I do sound pretty good,” he joked.
It wasn’t the first time he’d played a cave, he told the audience. He once performed at a cavern in Australia and then again in Tennessee where the show “The Caverns” (formerly called “Bluegrass Underground”) is filmed for PBS.
While the Hidden Cavern has existed hundreds of thousands of years, creating a tour to take folks down into a music venue took seven years. A 710-foot tunnel was drilled over that time to get visitors to and from the space, the floor was smoothed over, and handrails were added. It’s part of the new Hidden Wonders Tour, a multimillion-dollar expansion into other parts of the cavern. The concert venue is just one room on the new tour. “Developing this tour has been challenging due to many things—including the depth of the new public tour area,” Natural Bridge Caverns CEO Brad Wuest said. “We took the time to do it right. The result speaks for itself.”
With so many bodies in the small space, plus the caverns’ usual humidity, future cavern concertgoers should know it would be good to hydrate well before you go, and dress light. An electric fan pointed at the audience and at Montgomery at times did help, but some in the crowd were fanning themselves throughout the show.
More Concerts in the Cavern are on the way. On Sept. 14, Alex Meixner and Brett Cline will perform in what is billed as “the deepest concert venue in Texas,” followed by Topo Chico Cowboys (the duo of Drew Kennedy and Josh Grider) on Oct. 5. Wuest said ticket buyers who subscribe to the company’s newsletter get early dibs on tickets when shows are announced. The first concert sold out in a day and a half.
Montgomery’s set ended with an audience-requested cover of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” a raucous close to a unique and intimate show. The audience then headed to “The Bat” (belt-assisted transport), a conveyor belt-like people mover that takes visitors back up the incline, saving them a steep walk up from the underground.
After the show, Montgomery’s wife Cindy Crawford (not the celebrity model Cindy Crawford) remarked that the ballroom was a great fit for the guitarist’s voice. “A lot of artists try to put a bit of reverb on their voice,” she said. “This place has natural reverb.”