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Out of the Cradle... When you get right down to it, the concept of the Cradle Concert holds more groundbreaking appeal than its lineup. Headliners Jesse Dayton, Robert Earl Keen, Marcia Ball, Flaco Jimenez and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown are all well-known staples on the Texas touring circuit; music-conscious Houstonians can catch bang-up performances from any one of these acts at least a few times a year, and certainly in venues more intimate than the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. So the responsibility for filling seats for Saturday's show falls on a thematic pretense. And dubbing it a celebration of the "Gulf Coast's unique musical heritage" may just do the trick.

At least, Dave Thompson thinks so. The former director of operations for the production company in charge of Sugar Hill Studios, as well as a onetime co-conspirator in the development of Houston's Justice Records, Thompson considers himself a connoisseur of the Gulf Coast sound -- or perhaps more properly, sounds -- of which the artists booked for the Cradle Concert are arguably an integral part. Thompson also considers himself a project guy, laboring hard to get a new venture started, then bolting when he feels his help is no longer needed. The latest Thompson project is the Cradle Partnership, which he assembled with fellow industry veteran and Texas music lover Russ Setzekorn. Its goal? To give some long-deserved recognition and visibility to the diverse bed of musical influences indigenous to a region Thompson likes to call "the cradle." Specifically, the cradle refers to the stretch of land the hugs that Gulf from the South Texas plains to Louisiana's bayou country.

"All you hear around town is sour grapes about how there is no music scene down here, which I agree with 100 percent," says Thompson. "But that's what I find so attractive about it. There is no scene. It's incredibly varied, it's incredibly spread out and it's extremely multicultural."

To say the least, the cradle is nothing if not eclectic, nurturing everything from the San Antonio-bred Tex-Mex/rock and roll of Jimenez and fellow Texas Tornados Freddy Fender and Doug Sahm, to the glossy hat-act country of Beaumont's Tracy Byrd and Mark Chestnutt, to the sensitive singer/songwriter prowess of Houston's Keen and Sara Hickman, to the polka of Fayetteville's Leroy Motocha, to the solid zydeco foundation of Louisiana's Clifton Chenier and John Delafoos.

"To me, the [music] industry is about homogenization. That's what an industry does: it goes in and defines something, markets it, packages it and sells it," says Thompson. "You're seeing that in Austin right now and in Nashville, of course. I don't think that will ever happen here because of the diversity, and that's one of the reasons it is far more interesting from a musical standpoint."

Beaumont boy Jesse Dayton agrees. "People are here for the music, not for the hype surrounding it," he says. "Around here, the cool police are not gonna come out and get you."

Thompson's first task in getting the Cradle Partnership off the ground was assembling the musical names in a way that made geographical sense -- to give people a picture of the kind of broad mix he was talking about. So Thompson put together a map, identifying as many artists past and present as he could come up with and placing them in their respective places of birth. Needless to say, this map has gone through countless revisions since its creation, and it's far from complete.

"The map is meant to be interactive," Thompson admits. "It's a work in process; it's really sort of become this living being."

Thompson's map stretches as far west as San Antonio, as far south as Brownsville (home to Kris Kristofferson) and as far east as the Louisiana town of Breaux Bridge (where slide guitarist Sonny Landreth was born). Both New Orleans and Austin are excluded from the map, says Thompson, because "I think they already have their own identity. They are areas that have done well, and you can learn a lot from them. But they have already developed an industry around their music."

The map is part of a spiffy new web site (http://www.chron.com/cradle) that's loaded with juicy details about Gulf Coast music and artists. With help from the Houston Chronicle, Thompson hopes the site will remain up and running long after the first Cradle Concert is in the can. A portion of the ticket proceeds from the show will benefit the financial assistance programs of the Musicians Benevolent Society, while the rest will go to various cultural and educational programs.

Wildly popular or not, Saturday's show is only the beginning, promises Thompson. "We'd like to do CD-ROMs, records -- we'd love to do a big coffee table book with nice photography and the whole thing," he says. "This concert is only a small piece in the big picture."

Etc.... 'Tis the season of outdoor concerts and potential rain delays. Friday, the University of Houston brings us Park Fest '96. The free festival will include music from D.R.U.M., Godfrey's Rangers and the Hightailers, among others. Saturday, KTRU hosts its fifth annual Outdoor Concert on Rice University's campus. Austinite Kathy McCarty will top the rather eclectic bill, which also includes Soumitra Lahiri of India, New Yorker Arthur Doyle and locals Project Grimm. Finally, in case you missed the announcement, Everclear has moved its Thursday show from the International Ballroom to Numbers -- a much more hospitable venue, I might add. -- Hobart Rowland

 
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