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Reggae revival... After a so-so debut in 1995, Velvet Park will try its hand again this year at the festival game. Saturday and Sunday, the choice plot of cement and grass along Richmond Avenue just behind the Velvet Elvis will play host to the 1996 Bob Marley Festival Tour. Given the Marley Fest's past success at Buffalo Bayou Park, and its familiar message of "peace, unity and 'one love' for all," the free event (food and cash donations are encouraged) could deliver the big crowds that Velvet Park honchos have hoped for. Last year, more than 20,000 pounds of food donations were collected for the Houston Food Bank at the Marley Fest; this year's festival benefits the Southeast Keller Corporation's Partnership with Youth Residential Treatment Center.

As usual, both reggae and world beat acts share the bill, though the reggae end of the spectrum seems to be more thoroughly represented in this year's lineup. Headliner Joe Higgs is known as a founding father of the genre; he was said to have a mentor-type relationship with the Marley clan and Peter Tosh, and continues his close creative ties with the Wailers on his latest CD, Joe Higgs with the Wailers. Also among the top-billed acts are Errol Blackwood, a Jamaican-born singer raised in Canada who blends his love of gospel with the sounds of his homeland and boasts a rich vocal and lyrical style that bears a remarkable resemblance to Marley; and Ben Hunter, a favorite of Burning Spear, who captures much of that famed reggae group's spirit and intellect. Others scheduled for the weekend include regional faves Irie Time and New Orleans' Shepherd Band and T-Roy.

To many, the term "world beat" has always been little more than a tidy way of categorizing music and rhythms that are, quite frankly, almost impossible to categorize. In the case of Marley Fest, the label generally applies to any acts that don't feel comfortable being tagged as purely reggae, among them the multipercussionist ensemble Makak, jazz/reggae fusion artist Luko Adjaffi and the multiracial Dallas outfit Tunde Obazee and Code Red.

Seeing as this year's festival theme is "Positive Vibrations," you can be sure the Velvet Park crew is praying for all the good energy this Marleyism can generate to transform the event into the park's first real success. One could hardly be in awe over the crowds at last fall's Velvet Park Music Festival, where, at times, the grounds were almost deserted. But Velvet Park's Chris Harkness says lower attendance is to be expected in the beginning.

"It was our first try at that sort of thing," says Harkness. "Obviously, we were happy enough with the turnout to try it again this year."

Brushing up on the world... KPFT/90.1 FM is currently running National Public Radio's weekly African music program Afropop Worldwide for those wishing to cram a little before April's West African-themed Houston International Festival. Sponsored by the International Festival and hosted by Cameroon native Georges Collinet, the hourlong program (3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Fridays) explores the music of Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas in a format that mixes live concerts and studio recordings with artist interviews, trend profiles and historical retrospectives. The show covers a wide range of artists, from the few better-known, such as Youssou N'Dour, to the many that are largely alien to U.S. listeners. And while KPFT and the International Festival's main objective in airing the program is to prepare the city for the April event, chances are the station will hold on to the show as long as listeners are interested.

Etc.... After an ugly falling out with Justice Records a few years back, Houston singer/ songwriter David Rice has apparently found a new home, inking a deal recently with Columbia Records. The Big Easy will host a benefit show Friday for longtime Houston blues fixture Teddy Reynolds, keyboardist for Texas Johnny Brown and the Quality Blues Band, which will headline the fundraiser. All donations from the evening will go to help pay off the medical bills that have piled up since Reynolds' heart surgery last October. El Palacio, once known simply for its food, is now dabbling in live music and is lining up a rather impressive list of blues acts and regional performers for the weekends. (It's Bert Wills and the Cryin' Shames this Friday and Don Kesee & the Blues Masters Saturday.) The shift in focus has resulted in a name change as well; it's no longer El Palacio Mexican Restaurant, but El Palacio Cafe and Club. Friday, Houston's John Egan will celebrate the release of his debut, The Gin Diaries, at Ovations. The CD is an easy mixture of folk, rock and blues conveyed through intimate, confessional-style songwriting. Other shows of note: Thursday, coed folk-punk quartet 22 Brides plays Fitzgerald's; Friday, hillbilly Texan Wayne Hancock prolongs the positive buzz on his latest CD, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, a little longer with a show at the Urban Art Bar; Saturday, Brave Combo brings its Grammy-nominated post-modern polkas to the Fabulous Satellite Lounge; Sunday, brooding, well-coifed hat-act Tim McGraw performs at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and Loudon Wainwright III strolls into Rockefeller's backing a typically offbeat new CD, Grown Man. -- Hobart Rowland

 
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