Developed alongside the nearby Symphony Square as part of 1970s urban renewal efforts along Red River Street and Waller Creek, the 11-acre downtown green space at Waterloo Park hosted countless concerts, festivals, and other events from 1975 until its closure in 2011 for the construction of the Waller Creek Flood Control Tunnel, a project expected at the time to last only a few years.
Instead, it’s taken almost a decade to create the city’s troubled tunnel facility and subsequent improvements to the surrounding parkland under the auspices of the Waterloo Greenway Conservancy — but by all accounts, the final product’s set to open at long last later this summer assuming the planets remain aligned, providing Austin with an instant classic of outdoor recreation and one of the downtown area’s best outdoor music venues via the 5,000-person Moody Amphitheater.
Designed and built into the natural fabric of Waterloo Park, the Moody Amphitheater features more than 38,000 square feet of grass on its Great Lawn, comfortably fitting up to 5,000 people at a time. pic.twitter.com/YOGLLgajNk
— Waterloo Greenway (@WaterlooGW) January 4, 2021
With entertainment lineups set to be managed by mega-promoters C3 Presents and Live Nation, we’ll probably see some big names showing up out on the park’s great lawn pretty soon — but first, here’s a look back at 10 festivals that defined the park over its 36-year lifespan prior to entering its decade-long chrysalis.
Waterloo Music Festival Street Dance — 1978
Hosted as a fundraiser by the Austin Symphony Orchestra dating back to the early 1970s, the annual Street Dance festival had relocated to Waterloo Park by 1978, with a headlining performance by friend of the symphony Willie Nelson — and the concurrent celebration of Symphony Square’s grand opening across the street.
Woodshock — 1981
A “punk-rock beer bust” first hosted in Waterloo Park in 1981 but quickly relocated to a friendlier rural setting in subsequent years, Woodshock’s place in the history of alternative Austin was documented in a 1985 short film by then-unknown director Richard Linklater, with an appearance by a young musician named Daniel Johnston.
Hotter than July Music Festival — 1982
Held on Juneteenth between 1982 and 1985 and presumably named as a reference to the 1980 Stevie Wonder album, this festival’s inaugural event kicked off at Waterloo Park in 1982, but moved to Auditorium Shores for subsequent years. The event served as a fundraiser for Huston-Tillotson University, with sponsorships from local hit radio station KNOW 1490-AM and Miller Brewing along with a setlist including longtime local R&B group Blue Mist.
Antone’s Blues Festival — 1999
Sponsored by the legendary Antone’s club at Waterloo Park in 1999 and 2000, in 2001 the event’s final year with headliner Ray Charles was renamed the KGSR Blues Festival — though this festival was distinct from the station’s other well-known Blues on the Green event still hosted to this day.
SXSW Outdoor Stage — 1998 to 2001
The ever-expanding SXSW has featured an official outdoor stage with free concerts for all since the 1990s, and from 1998 to 2001 that stage graced Waterloo Park with local acts like Spoon and Ian Moore.
Spamarama — 2007
Though Austin’s legendary semi-ironic celebration of canned meat has continued sporadically since 1978, the final festival until a 2019 revival took place at Waterloo Park in 2007 — and oddly enough, the event was documented by the Smithsonian as a sort of Austin take on intangible cultural heritage.
Mess With Texas — 2008
Hosted at Waterloo Park between 2008 and 2011 by some of the minds behind Fun Fun Fun Fest, the Mess With Texas festival took place concurrent with SXSW, but was unaffiliated with the larger event — and managed to score some big acts of its own, as seen in the video above and the quote below:
Last year was the first year that Mess with Texas did it at the park, and much to their credit, they somehow pulled off a huge, un-SXSW-sanctioned show featuring as headliners a reunited Breeders. This pissed off the official SXSW festival greatly, because the Breeders didn’t play a sanctioned event.
Fun Fun Fun Fest — 2006 to 2010
Often imitated, badly missed, and never quite fully revived after moving to Auditorium Shores in 2011, the five-year run of Fun Fun Fun Fest at Waterloo Park was perhaps the most genuine expression of Austin’s unique culture during the 2000s. It might not be quite the same ten years later, but we hope the new Waterloo Park considers doing this kind of thing again.
Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival — 1997 to 2011
Hosted by Austin’s best-known alt-weekly since 1991, the Chronicle’s celebration of sauce settled into its longtime home at Waterloo Park between 1997 and the final event before the park’s closure in 2011. The event was virtual in 2020 for obvious reasons, but it’s unclear if it’s on again for real in 2021 — no word whether the event will try to make its triumphant return to the reopened park in 2022.
Austin Ice Cream Festival — 2007 to 2011
Perhaps the simplest festival of them all, the Austin Ice Cream Festival hosted in Waterloo Park from 2007 to its closure in 2011 brought several tons of ice cream from local vendors to the masses, smack in the middle of Austin’s hottest month. No matter how many improvements the park gets, it’s hard to imagine a better time than that.