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One Festival Turns the Page While Another Flies Under the Radar

A look at iFest and the Texas Crawfish & Music Festival.

iFest

It's hard to believe that the Houston International Festival was once just a street fair in front of Jones Hall and the Alley Theatre, but that's only one wrinkle in a fascinating history that stretches back to 1971. iFest has been all over the city, from Main Street downtown to Reliant Park, but officials are hoping that this year it will enter a new era at the freshly renovated Sam Houston Park, one that's a little less tumultuous than in recent years.

iFest is now one of Houston's oldest citywide public celebrations, and said to be its original arts-oriented festival. It is definitely one of the city's most unique: Each year it highlights a "spotlight country" (this year Australia) and gears its food, music and other cultural programming toward that nation as much as possible, as it does with the curriculum guide it produces and distributes to schoolchildren across the Houston area.

But iFest has had a run of bad luck lately. Rain has stalked the festival for the past few years, but never worse than last year, when a downpour forced the cancellation of almost an entire day's worth of programming, including headliner Los Lobos. On top of that, construction around Sam Houston Park — especially the natural amphitheater that normally houses the main stage — led to stages being moved around the area around City Hall that hosts the festival, and made getting around it somewhat difficult at times. (Note: The Houston Press is a sponsor of iFest this year.)

But even more significant, last summer the Houston Festival Foundation, the nonprofit that produces iFest, decided to stop producing the city's annual Thanksgiving Day parade because the holiday event had been sinking it in debt to the tune of some $200,000. According to a September 30 article in the Houston Chronicle, iFest also asked the city of Houston to temporarily pay some of the cleaning expenses incurred at last year's event (which it did, and iFest repaid), and had to set up a payment plan before the city would agree to renew its special-events permit for 2014.

But a new year brings a clean slate, and iFest's Kim Stoilis, executive director of the Houston Festival Foundation, says the organization has moved its offices to a space that was donated to it and has "realistically" addressed its budget, even managing to build in a "rain day." But Stoilis, who has been with the foundation since 2011, reckons that producing the parade one more year could well have spelled the end of iFest.

"That's just a harsh reality," she says. "[The parade is] a great event, and we're so pleased that the city was able to produce it, but as a nonprofit, what business is it of ours producing free events that we can't afford?"

Besides freeing them of the budget imposed by the parade, Stoilis says the foundation's decision has allowed iFest's staff to redirect all the time it would have taken working on the event — which would lead to what she calls "our head chasing our tail — into education programs and community outreach with partners like Young Audiences. The foundation's backers have been pleased, she notes.

"Absolutely to a T, every one of them has been fully supportive," Stoilis says. "They didn't understand why we were producing the parade anyway, and they supported us 100 percent. They felt like it was a very good decision."

Stoilis is also expecting the improvements to Sam Houston Park to make a huge difference this year.

"On top of everything else, we produced a festival in a war zone," she says. "I remember I had a meeting last year with the Texas Festival & Events Association, and it was in one of the buildings around the festival. We were on a high floor, and it truly looked like it had been bombed out, and there was a festival in the middle of it. So this year, Sam Houston's beautiful."

The Houston International Festival returns to the streets around City Hall this Saturday and Sunday. See ifest.org for schedules and ticket information.
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Texas Me

Texas Cookin'
Up in Spring, a relatively little-known music festival brings in some top names.

Chris Gray

Except for autumn, spring is festival season in Houston. But of all the local events competing for people's time and money this time of year, one hasn't quite received the credit it deserves — especially for its musical merit. Within just a few years, the Texas Crawfish & Music Festival, an outgrowth of the nonprofit Old Town Spring Preservation League, has quietly emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the state's concert calendar.

As with last weekend, this year the festival's second weekend will host an array of Texas's top bands in both rock (Los Lonely Boys, Bob Schneider) and country (Kevin Fowler, Dale Watson), plus an undercard full of up-and-comers: Austin's Shakey Graves and Whiskey Shivers, Houston's the Suffers and even UK soul-jazz outfit The Filthy Six. That's to go along with stalwarts like Ben Kweller, Jesse Dayton, Bri Bagwell, Alejandro Escovedo and Heartless Bastards.

Other Houston acts are prominently featured this weekend, including the Tontons, Nick Greer & the G's, Junior Gordon Band and Justin Van Sant. There's something for almost every taste, plus a few surprises — and isn't that what every good music festival aims for?

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