The Sick Old Man of the Festival Circuit

An open letter to the organizers and music bookers of the Houston International Festival

Dear Houston International Festival Foundation Inc.,

It was with great anticipation that I clicked over to your Web site to check out this year's music schedule. Over the years I have been to about ten iFests, and it's safe to say that this has been the defining musical event in our city year after year.

What delights would we have this year? Sadly, I must report that they are far too few.

Let's start with the good stuff. First, I commend you for moving back downtown. The urban setting defines the fest -- and having last year's shindig at Reliant Park was like moving the Masters to a putt-putt course.

And some of the bookings are truly first-rate -- especially Toots and the Maytals, Vishal Vaid, Zap Mama, Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali and, even though they're American, Taj Mahal and Ozomatli.

But then after that, there's a fall-off, little on the bill to justify the $10 walk-up tickets and the expensive concessions. Not that Grupo Fantasma, Delbert McClinton, the Stone Coyotes, Brave Combo and Iguanas are subpar bands -- far from it. It's just that they're all in Houston pretty often. And as much as I like both Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas and Ricardo Lemvo, they come to iFest every year -- and overfamiliarity breeds a certain sense of been-there-done-that.

And now we come to the locals. I think you've done a good job rounding up most of the top tier of the city's blues and zydeco talent, and seeing guys like Pete Mayes play big festivals in their hometown is always a treat.

But then there's the Flamingo Gardens Houston Showcase Stage.

It is my belief that just as iFest should bring the best of the world to Houston, so should it present the best of Houston to the world. But looking over this stage's talent list, I just can't say that this is getting done. At all. Of the 27 bands playing there over the run of the fest, I've heard of only seven.

And who exactly is Scott Essex -- the guy who co-booked this stage? I was shocked when I was told by your spokesperson that he is the owner of Flamingo Gardens -- the landscaping company that donated the materials for the palapas at iFest. I was told that he was a big music fan who remembered the old days of iFest, when many local bands played, and so you let him book his own stage here. Which could have been a good thing, if only Essex had demonstrated some knowledge of the Houston scene in the year 2005. But if you ask me, as a local talent buyer, he makes a helluva landscape gardener.

Or maybe it's me. Maybe I haven't heard of these bands because I've been sleeping at the switch in my four-plus years on the job here, not to mention my decades of living in this town as a music fan.

Not in this case. I Googled the bands I hadn't heard of. For some, this gig is their only presence on the entire World Wide Web. And of those that do have sites, I was relieved (as a professional) to discover that several were wedding and cover bands and thus not really part of my beat here at the Press.

But my relief as a pro is tempered by my disappointment as a music fan and, hell, as a proud Houstonian. This is a huge opportunity squandered for both fans of iFest and the top acts in Houston.

To wit: Where are popsters and rockers Tody Castillo, Los Skarnales, Chango Jackson, the John Sparrow, Arthur Yoria, 30footFALL, Moses Guest, Sugar Shack, Bring Back the Guns, Vatos Locos, Clouseaux, Gun Crazy, Fatal Flying Guilloteens, Irene, Michael Haaga, the Linus Pauling Quartet, Guy Schwartz, Pale, the Scattered Pages and Fondue Monks?

Where are country and roots acts John Evans, Hayes Carll, Jesse Dayton, Carolyn Wonderland, Mando Saenz, Sean Reefer & the Resin Valley Boys, David Brake, Medicine Show, Opie Hendrix, Greg Wood, Hilary Sloan, Miss Leslie and Her Juke Jointers, Lonestar Bluegrass, Clay Farmer and Davin James?

Where is there any hip-hop on this bill? Nowhere, that's where, and in a city with one of the most vibrant rap scenes in the country, that's pitiful. Hell, there's even a Punjabi rapper -- Deep -- living here. Why not book him, this being the year of India and all?

In short, where is the lifeblood of this city's musical pulse? Where are the rappers who are signing national major-label deals? Where are the bands that play the clubs in this city, night after night, week after week? Why aren't they given a chance to play at Houston's marquee event, and why have you given those slots to wedding and cover bands?

Was it money that you worried about? You shouldn't have. Three quarters of those acts I rattled off would charge no more than $500 to play a gig that could offer as much local exposure as this one. Throw in some food and free beer, and you could probably shave $100 off that tab. Or more. Two of the artists in those lists above told me their bands would play iFest for free, and I asked only three what they would charge.

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