Musicians had several messages for San Antonio on the cold and cloudy eve of its 300th birthday.

“I believe we’re going to make it,” opening act Sam Riggs said before launching into his hit song Breathless. His message might have been for the sparse, early audience of 100 hearty souls who braved almost freezing temperatures and chilly northerly winds. They had seven hours to go before thousands more joined them for the New Year’s Eve countdown in Hemisfair.

“This is probably one of the coldest shows I’ve done,” Riggs, a Florida native and Austin transplant, said after his performance. He smiled broadly as he posed for fan selfies, and said “San Antonio is one of the most amazing cities in the world. It’s the first 300 years, and here’s to the next 300.”

Many musicians wore cutoff-finger gloves, blowing on their hands between songs. Saxophonist and San Antonian BillyRay Sheppard, who followed Riggs, thanked an assistant who gave him ‘Hot Hands’ hand warmers, and he held his cold instrument in front of a sidestage heater as fellow musicians soloed.

Meanwhile, a group of two dozen fans had lined up at the main stage to wait in the cold and wind for headlining acts Pat Benatar and REO Speedwagon.

Dilah Reed and mother D.J. had been waiting since 2:30 p.m., before the gates opened, for the Benatar and Neil Giraldo show. Longtime fans, they said they had never before seen Benatar perform live. “I have three jackets on,” Kansas City native Reed said, confident at 5:30 p.m. that they’d make it through the cold for the show. Later, lines to enter Hemisfair’s unfinished Civic Park stretched into the surrounding streets – some turned back home when seeing the wait.

Weather notwithstanding, José María De León “Little Joe” Hernandez offered a message of consistency to a city that has seen its fair share of bumps in the road during the planning of its big birthday celebration.

“Stay who you are,” Hernandez said after his upbeat and soulful show. The 10 members of his La Familia band aimed to heat up the night with bouncy conjunto beats, behind fiery trumpet solos of John Ontiveros.

Little Joe Y La Familia performs during the Celebrate 300 party.
Little Joe Y La Familia performs during the Celebrate 300 party. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Erika Prosper, wife of Mayor Ron Nirenberg and First Lady of San Antonio, introduced Little Joe in Spanish to a crowd of more than 1,000 enthusiastic and dancing fans. Later, inside the warmth of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, she translated her introductory thoughts.

“Little Joe’s music inspires so many generations,” Prosper said. “And as we enter the ‘300’ celebration, I was hoping that any kid, anybody who had ever been touched by his music, would understand how meaningful it was for having him play on our 300th.”

Prosper said Little Joe’s song Tu Y Las Nubes inspires “dreaming beyond the clouds, being able to move yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of,” appropriate both to the day’s gray skies and San Antonio’s future.

The musical city’s past and future were represented by the Last Bandoleros, whose members include two sons, Diego and Emilio IV, of San Antonio Tex-Mex legend Emilio Navaira. “Happy to be home with family and friends,” Diego said before the show, having returned in October from a tour spanning 41 countries in North America and Europe.

Julio Guerra, guarding the East stage for BR Ushering of Texas, said he’d been at the elder Navaira’s funeral last year and has been a fan since the famed musician started his career in San Antonio.

“He was always the king of music, born and raised here,” Guerra said. “It’s exciting to see them play because they’re following their dad’s footsteps. … Different music, but it’s awesome.”

Though he wore fingerless gloves, the digits of guitarist/vocalist Jerry Fuentes weren’t too cold for an intricate Spanish guitar solo on I Don’t Want To Know, the new video for which will be released Jan. 5, Bandoleros members said.

The spirit of the evening was perhaps best captured during the set of legendary conjunto accordionist Flaco Jimenez, accompanied by members of the Texmaniacs. The crowd had quintupled since Riggs’ earlier set, and swayed and sang along to the Jimenez/Freddy Fender hit Volver, Volver.

Otra! Otra!” the appreciative crowd chanted as the set ended.

“Wishing you a merry Christmas and a happy, happy New Year. Feliz Navidad todos!” said the frail but hardy Jimenez, blowing on his half-gloved fingers as he was helped offstage by an assistant.

Flaco Jiménez Y Su Conjunto performs.
Flaco Jiménez Y Su Conjunto performs at Celebrate 300. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Despite near-freezing temperatures, by 8:30 p.m. security lines were 30 eager people deep and eight across at the Market Street entrance. Chilly event-goers were eager to see Benatar and Giraldo perform, witness the nine lives of REO Speedwagon capping off the musical night, and welcome 2018 with a 20-minute firework show.

“We’re not gonna let a little cold or a little wind dampen our enthusiasm, are we?” County Judge Nelson Wolff implored the crowds during his co-introduction of Little Joe with Nirenberg and Prosper. An enthusiastic roar came in response from citizens and visitors who turned out on one of the coldest nights of the year.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...