If you’ve even half heartedly glanced at my social media then chances are you have noticed I have a soft spot for live music. And Texas Hill Country. And live music in the Hill Country at an intimate, unique, laid back venue? Even better. String lights, picnic tables, lawn chairs, cold beer, the works. So when I found out that Chris Stapleton was playing at River Road Ice House in New Braunsfels, Texas, I knew I was gunna be there come Hell or high-water. Luckily Mr. Gypsy’s birthday was coming up giving me just the excuse I needed to turn this concert into the start of a birthday weekend blow-out. Enlisting the help of a fellow gypsy (who happens to be a Hill Country connoisseur) and some friends, we put together a classic Hill Country bucket-list weekend itinerary.
Making good time we opted to kickstart the festivities with a few cold craft brews before checking in. Consulting my Hill Country Craft Beer Trail map, we decided on Middleton Brewing in San Marcos since it wasn’t far from our vacation rental. I knew when we walked in that even if the beer was terrible, Middleton had just won my heart. Three fat and wrinkly pugs waddled up to greet us. Dogs and beer. Life is good. Turns out their beer wasn’t terrible. They offered a sampling board of 5 beers of your choice so I savored some brews of the darker variety, such as the U.S. Beer Open Gold Metal Winner Black Lab Porter (Ok, ok I ordered it because of it’s name…I only noticed it had won a medal later on.) I also partook in the U.S. Beer Open Bronze Medal Winner Tourmaline, the barrel aged Raspberry Porter (which tasted of, you guessed it, raspberries), the Garnet Belgian Amber, and (for the sake of diversity) the Easy Rider Pale Ale.
By the time we were finished sampling the brews, it was time to check in, drop our bags, and head to River Road Ice House. We wound our way steadily up curvy, switchback roads to the top of a hill where the SKYHOUSE clung to the steep side of the rocky hill overlooking Canyon Lake and the surrounding hill country. The clean, contemporary profile of the house was a pleasant contrast to the rolling, rocky landscape. The galvanized tin that wrapped the exterior was softened by the feathery grasses and chaparral that covered the hillside. Inside was bright and airy due to the high ceilings, open floor design, and floor-to-ceiling windows that opened onto the wraparound viewing deck. State-of-the-art appliances, gorgeous orange granite, and highly polished wide plank floors were artfully balanced with exposed brick, open live-edge shelling, and bright and cheery furniture. Downstairs, the locker and exposed I-beam hinted at an industrial vibe while large windows rivaled the view upstairs. In a word AWESOME! And it was just minutes from New Braunsfels and Gruene!
The concert was sold out and seating was wherever-you-can-get, so we headed to the venue hours before the opening band was scheduled to start. River Road Ice House is situated far from the city lights on the corner of River Road and Hueco Springs Loop. A large outdoor stage rests at the bottom of a sloping hill where tiers of foldout chairs made up part of the reserved section. At the top of the slope were beer booths and food vendors. To the right of the outdoor stage is the icehouse where a garage door is rolled up revealing a smaller stage, where the memorabilia is sold, and more bars. On top of the icehouse is the VIP section overlooking the stage and the hill.
Here’s a TIP: If you are attending an outdoor concert… in Texas…in the summer…forgo trying to look too cute. You are going to be standing a looooong time so ditch the heels. You are going to sweat profusely, so don’t bother with a lot of makeup. Guys, steer clear of heavy denim and starched button downs unless you bought stock in Goldbond. Stick with comfortable, breathable tees, tanks, and shorts. Trust me, no one will think less of you!
We claimed a grassy seat just behind the reserved section, a couple of drinks, and a burger from one of the onsite food vendors. The sun began to set and thankfully a breeze picked up as the Quaker City Night Hawks hit the stage to a heavy rock and roll beat. By the time Chris Stapleton came on, the night had cooled off and the stars shone brightly overhead.He sounded even better live than he does on his CDs. Between songs he spoke of the stories and situations behind his songwriting. Overall, an incredible concert. To top the night off, as we walked back to the trucks, the owner of the field in which we parked in had set up a giant BBQ pit and was handing out ribs and roasted corn to everyone. Man I love Texas.
The day dawned clear and bright, perfect weather for a day spent leisurely floating down the Guadalupe River. Just a few minutes away were several tube outfitters where you could rent a tube for each person and even one for your ice chest. They conveniently shuttled you to the water and picked you back up at the end of the day. Slowly we floated beneath the low hanging cypress boughs in the clear, cold river. At the end of the day, we returned to SKYHOUSE where we grilled, stayed up late into the night swimming in the pool, and watched the Perseid meteor shower.
Saturday was overcast and the sound of rumbling thunder could be heard in the distance. Slightly cooler, this was ideal since we planned on spending the day walking around the Waterpower District of Gruene.
Founded in 1845 by German immigrant farmers Ernest and Antoinette Gruene, their estate prospered due to cotton yields. Eventually 20 or more families moved to Gruene where Ernest and his sons had already built several homes resulting in a mercantile store and a cotton gin. Soon a dance hall was built shortly followed by an additional general store. The boll weevil eventually wiped out cotton crops and the Great Depression finished off what the boll weevil hadn’t. Except the dance hall. It never closed. In the 1970’s, the entire town of Gruene was registered in the National Register of Historic Places. Boutiques and small businesses moved into the original homes and mercantile stores and The Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar moved into the hull of the original cotton gin. To this day Gruene Hall still offers live music all day, everyday of the year in the same dusty, unairconditioned building.
We browsed through Blank Swan Antiques, taste tested the homemade salsas in the Gruene General Store, and picked out a few pieces of pottery at The Barn Pottery. We even ventured into Pookie Jane’s, a woman’s apparel boutique boasting the “Man Cave” with free beer and TV. Gradually we made our way into Gruene Hall for a beer and song. Long wooden tables carved and graffitied over the years lined the floor. A cash bar serves cold beer and drinks to sweaty patrons who wonder in and out throughout the day.
Once the band took a break we headed to The Gristmill for a late lunch/early dinner . With 10 different dining “rooms”, The Gristmill is easily the biggest and most famous restaurant in town. Structural elements such as collapsed brick walls, dark exposed beams, and large industrial chains are constant reminders of the buildings original function.
Close to bursting, we heading back to SKYHOUSE ladened down with our purchases. Our last night was spent once again on the wraparound deck and in the pool overlooking the twinkling Texas Hill Country.