For decades, Austin has been virtually synonymous with central Texas’ cutting-edge music and arts scene. Yet there are plenty of other central Texas communities that are making their own powerful contributions to the region’s artistic heritage, and Waco is particularly ready for its close-up.
Starting in late spring, the Levitt AMP Waco Music Series will bring outdoor concerts to East Waco’s brand new “front porch,” the Bridge Street Plaza and Amphitheater, an expansive public space designed to bring together the diverse city’s 139,000 residents to experience the power of free, live music. The series is presented by regional arts agency Creative Waco, in partnership with the City of Waco and arts organization Keep Waco Loud, and will feature a diverse range of artists from multiple genres, in keeping with the hallmarks of the Levitt AMP program.
Bridge Street Plaza is located along the city’s Elm Avenue corridor, a major thoroughfare that links East Waco to the downtown commercial core just across the Brazos River. East Waco is historically Black, and during previous decades the area suffered from under-investment that left many of its once thriving commercial areas barren. In recent years, however, the neighborhood has experienced a resurgence, thanks to careful planning and revitalization efforts by the City. New businesses have been moving into the Elm Avenue corridor, and many of the area’s existing businesses have been undergoing renovations. Perhaps the most potent symbol of the area’s changing fortunes can be found in Bridge Street Plaza, which was officially unveiled in 2021 following a $6 million investment from the City.
As Kennedy Sam, Creative Waco’s Director of Marketing and Communications, notes, the Bridge Street Amphitheater could hardly be a more perfect location for the city’s Levitt AMP Music Series. In fact, it was practically built for that purpose.
“When the City was going through the planning process and working with community members to decide what they wanted [the Elm Avenue corridor] to look like and to feel like, one of the prime things that came from that conversation was they wanted this to be a gathering place, an area where people from across Waco can come together, and they wanted that reflected in the development,” Sam says.
Out of these conversations with community members came the idea that Bridge Street Plaza should function as Waco’s “front porch”: a place for all of Waco to gather and share arts experiences, and to welcome newcomers to the city. “The street is set up to be a festival street, so it’s built for pedestrian traffic, with a lot of green spaces, a lot of places for food trucks to park,” Sam says. “It’s just a great time for this Waco community, bringing new life to that space while still honoring the history of the community, and the history of East Waco as an arts and cultural hub.”
East Waco has a particularly rich musical legacy, which will be celebrated during the Levitt AMP Music Series. The area’s churches were key incubators of gospel music talent, and the city’s Baylor University is home to one of the world’s preeminent collections of gospel recordings and artifacts. Internationally famed musicians like pioneering Black theater performer Jules Bledsoe and zydeco legend Classie Ballou called East Waco home, and Ballou’s children and grandchildren still live in the city. The location of the Bridge Street Amphitheater is powerfully symbolic, as well. It is built not far from the former location of Walker’s Auditorium, a historical pillar of Waco’s Black community which hosted performances from the likes of B.B. King, Etta James, and James Brown in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Waco’s artistic legacy continues to the present day. As Sam notes, the city’s creative community has grown “exponentially” in the past half-decade, with everyone from musicians to visual artists, jewelry-makers, leather artists, and illustrators making Waco their home. In 2020, the State of Texas officially designated Waco as a Music Friendly Community, in recognition of its commitment to developing musical talent and professional-grade music production resources. As Sam explains: “That means we have the infrastructure to bring in outside talent and outside production to our community, to entice them to come here and produce albums, because we have the individual musical talent here, and we have the technical talent here.”
In addition to activating Bridge Street Plaza and showcasing the vibrancy of the city’s arts scene and depth of its technical resources, Sam also hopes that the Levitt AMP series will provide a boost for Waco’s local music venues. “The Levitt concert series just further shows Waco is a place artists should consider stopping at when they’re planning out their tour dates. Because we have the audiences here for them as well.”
More than anything, Sam hopes that the Levitt AMP Waco Music Series helps spotlight the city’s sense of possibility and culture of creativity.
“I really appreciate how open Waco is to new things,” she says. “People who have ideas are always trying things out and experimenting, whether it’s with this concert series or pop-up events at a local bar or a restaurant. People just want to see new things happen here. And we have a city that is willing to put in the work to help them grow.”