Just shy of a hundred people hiked down a steep grade to reach the underside of San Antonio's Roosevelt Ave. bridge on the last Sunday in March. They didn't want to be late for an intimate performance by underground music legend Jad Fair.
Although near the end of the day, the sun was still high enough to beat down as attendees staked their spots and unfolded portable chairs. As Fair and his two-person backing band began playing along a concrete embankment on the other side of the river, some attendees sat or stood just to the side of the bridge to make the most of its shade.
But everyone there was in thrall to the music. Unlike attendees of a bar or club show, they really listened.
The location of the performance is an emerging Alamo City venue dubbed Echo Bridge. And it's having a moment that organizers of its concert series hope to build it from a quirky space for catching low-key local shows into an unconventional tour stop for top-name acts. Fair's recent appearance seems to be a key step in that direction.
The unusual setting's acoustics and vibe are key to its appeal, said Justin Parr, who curates the concerts with fellow visual artist Jeff Wheeler.
"It has a very special architecture," Parr said. "Whether that was intentional or not, I don't know. But we think it should be embraced as a venue by the city. The dream didn't have to do with us being able to program it. We just thought 'this should happen.'"
Down by the river
During concerts, performers stand across the river, and the bridge itself provides a natural echo effect. In the case of the Fair performance, his lo-fi tunes gained a slight shimmering of psychedelia, reminiscent of reverb in a studio. Graffiti provides the backdrop, and while the music is loud enough to hear, it's not concert loud.
After a grassroots start, the series has received the blessing of both the city and the San Antonio River Authority. Though the city would like things to wrap up by sunset, Parr said that some of its early performances included multimedia projections that, of course, require darkness. He'd like to schedule more after-sundown shows but stressed that Echo Bridge appreciates city support and wants to stay within its guidelines.
Fair sang without amplification, played guitar sporadically, and was accompanied by Brian Birzer on an acoustic guitar, whose instrument ran through a lunchbox-sized amp. On percussion was Cheryl Tepper, who played in a style reminiscent of the Velvet Underground's Moe Tucker. Fair, who's collaborated with Tucker in the past, split the setlist between numbers from his prolific band Half Japanese and songs from his collaborations with the late Daniel Johnston, Austin's celebrated outsider songwriter and artist. He even threw in a cover of Bob Dylan's "You Angel You."
And though Fair might be used to playing to larger crowds, he brought a solid turnout to Echo Bridge. Most of the 100 available tickets, priced at a $25 suggested donation, sold out in advance.
Parr, who owns and runs the San Antonio's Flight Gallery, said he's enjoyed the bridge's ambiance for two decades.
"I've been going down there for 20 years. Me and my friends would ride our bikes from Southtown art events. It'd be the middle of the night and Taqueria Guadalajara would still be open right there above it. We'd eat tacos and then go under the bridge and yell and clap and make noise."
Wheeler first visited the Echo Bridge location for a midnight piano performance during one of Parr's "Flight Camp" fundraisers. The exact date is lost to history, but lore places it around March 2017.
"It was like sound in HD," Wheeler said. "It was so beautiful. I had the idea [for the Echo Bridge venue] and brought it to Justin. I said, 'This needs to be something you do.'"
Fast forward a bit to the opening of Wheeler's Space C7 gallery. He'd been enjoying the sunset at Echo Bridge several times a week.
"I brought it back up to Justin and we decided to make it happen," he said.
The pair scheduled a March 2021 solo performance by Erik Sanden, frontman of quirky local rock outfit Buttercup. By the time of a July appearance from Piñata Protest spinoff Grupo Tan Tan, the city had gotten wind of the guerilla performance and shut it down.
"We thought that could be the end for us," Wheeler said.
But all wasn't lost.
"By Monday or Tuesday, we got an email from one of the guys in the River Authority," Wheeler explained. "He said he caught wind of what happened and said, 'Don't worry, hang tight, we're working with you. We know this is a grassroots thing that everybody is loving, and we're working on getting a permit.' And by the end of that week, we had one."
On August 13 of last year, Echo Bridge announced the permit was in place. Nicole Marshall, an official with the San Antonio River Authority, confirmed that the agency assisted the organizers with the permitting process.
All for the artists
Although Wheeler and Parr want to continue growing the Echo Bridge series, they insist that it should remain non-profit, with money from ticket sales going directly to the performers.
"It's a way to trick these people into coming to playing for us, to share this special place," Wheeler said. "In order to get the bigger names, we knew we needed all that money to go to them." That aspect, he added, initially surprises some of the artists. "They don't believe it. They think it's some kind of scam."
Wheeler also sees other ways to up the ante for Echo Bridge.
"We'd like to line up sponsors," he said. "We'd still sell the tickets, but the sponsors pay the band. Then the ticket money goes to a different charity. Somebody we really believe in."
Recent performer Fair has gigged a wide variety of places during his decades-long career, including an "odd" private party for Rod Stewart. ("I can't imagine [Stewart or] anyone there had any idea who I was.")
Even so, Echo Bridge was a different experience, especially from the tour Fair did opening arena shows for Nirvana, which he characterized as both "surreal" and "unreal."
"Being closer to the audience makes a difference. And everyone was so attentive," he said of the outdoor performance. "I was appreciative of that."
In the end it's about the music, and the producers want to increase the profile of the artists they attract. Wheeler is quick to jump on the possibility of Eddie Vedder.
"Maybe if I mention it in this interview, we can manifest that," he added.
Parr laughed and agreed. "For this entire period, we've been saying Pearl Jam or just Eddie Vedder is going to play at Echo Bridge. So, I'm just like, 'Yeah, it's gonna happen!'"
Echo Bridge has four future shows scheduled. The series will host The Derailers on Sunday, April 24, Hayden Pedigo and Mason Lindal on Sunday, May 1, Cary Swinney on Sunday, May 22 and a solo performance from Texas rockabilly legend Rev. Horton Heat on Sunday, July 3.
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