The Grateful Dead never played the Erwin Center, so Saturday’s performance by the Dead & Company — which features former Dead members Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart plus platinum-selling guitar star John Mayer — is kind of a big deal for the University of Texas campus arena that’s celebrating a big birthday this week.
Wednesday officially marks 40 years for the venue, which opened on Nov. 29, 1977, with the Texas Longhorns women’s basketball team defeating Temple Junior College. The UT men’s team has the honor of playing on the exact night of the 40th anniversary, hosting Florida A&M on the heels of a heartbreaking near-upset of top-ranked Duke in Oregon last weekend.
For four decades, the Erwin Center has been central to life in Austin. Home to the Horns’ men’s and women’s hoops teams, it also has presented many of the world’s top-tier musical acts and a few remarkable special events.
We revisited some of those highlights a decade ago, when the Erwin Center celebrated 30 years by unveiling a photo exhibit of highlights from the venue’s long run in its concourse. The exhibit “not only includes photos of everyone from Dolly Parton to the Dalai Lama, but shots of UT basketball stars such as T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant,” the Statesman’s Michael Corcoran wrote for the occasion. “The idea is to keep adding photos.”
Indeed, opportunities for more photos have continued, as the Erwin Center’s fourth decade brought some of its biggest highlights. Foremost was Paul McCartney’s two-night stand in May 2013. The concert finally happened after repeated efforts to book McCartney, former Erwin Center director John Graham told the Statesman’s Peter Mongillo at the time. “You just keep at it, and keep at it, and keep at it, until finally someday, if everyone is still alive, you manage to put it together,” said Graham, who retired earlier this year and was succeeded by longtime associate director Jimmy Earl.
As the largest indoor venue in Austin, the Erwin Center also proved its value to the community as a gathering spot for major benefit concerts in recent years. Local luminaries Willie Nelson, the Dixie Chicks, Asleep at the Wheel, Eric Johnson and others took part in an October 2011 fundraiser for victims of wildfires in Bastrop and other Central Texas communities. Nelson returned this past September for “Harvey Can’t Mess With Texas,” an all-star hurricane relief benefit that drew major national acts including Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor.
Other upcoming Erwin Center events include megastar Lady Gaga on Tuesday, Dec. 5; The Comedy Get Down with Cedric “The Entertainer” and more on Dec. 15; classical-crossover duo 2Cellos on Jan. 18; country acts Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves and Midland on Feb. 9; and pop singer Lana Del Rey on Feb. 11.
And on June 3, the Erwin Center formally celebrates is 40th birthday with George Strait, who’s played the venue more than any other act and is making a rare live appearance since completing his final concert tour in 2014. Most seats are sold out, though a few platinum and VIP tickets remain.