Aftermath: One Wild Weekend
The Imani School Student Jazz Ensemble
Rocks Off is still in the very early recovery stages from this weekend, which was one of the most satisfying musical whirlwinds he's been sucked into in quite some time. He started off Friday evening at the Arena Theatre (his new favorite local venue) for Erykah Badu's retro-futuristic benefit for Houston's Imani School. The local private academy's jazz ensemble - no member was over age 13 - even had the honor of opening, and did not disappoint with a seriously funky - make that fonky - suite of Herbie Hancock-style Sixties soul-jazz.
Badu, meanwhile, was as fabulous as Rocks Off expected, mixing psychotronic sequencer beats with Afro-Caribbean rhythms and some serious old-school R&B voodoo on old favorites "On and On" and "Tyrone." Her "Way Back" medley of first-generation hip-hop hits ("Rapper's Delight," "Friends," "Ladi Dadi") whipped the sold-out crowd into a frenzy, and she dedicated "Me" - her slow-cooking funk symphony from last year's New Amerykah: Fourth World War - to "my girl Carolyn Farb," who was in the front row.
And we were just getting started.
After Badu, Rocks Off headed to Walter's on Washington for ex-Basses Loaded linchpin Benjamin Wesley's Geschichte EP release party. Like Badu's, Wesley's set was a seamless fusion of organic and electronic textures, and he closed out with a gaggle of friends onstage singing the gleeful chorus to Geschichte standout "Have You Ever Died?"
We also caught the debut of Bolt, a brand-new local quartet featuring members of American Sharks and Black Black Gold, whose understandably abbreviated set touched off a friendly parking-lot debate over whether they sounded more like T. Rex or the New York Dolls. Rocks Off thinks they had the era right, but not the artist - to him, Bolt is almost a dead ringer for Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie. Watch out for these guys.
Saturday, Rocks Off headed to Cactus Music and happened to catch the tail end of Jenny Wolfe and the Pack's in-store. Wolfe is a 16-year-old Austinite with blue hair and a voice loads better than any of this year's American Idol contestants - her version of Martha & the Vandellas' "Heat Wave" sent shivers down Rocks Off's spine. (That's available on the Pack's self-titled 2007 debut, and the band has just released After School; both are available through SteadyBoy Records.) Then it was off to Conroe for the annual Texas Independence Day Festival, where Rocks Off got a healthy dose of small-town Americana thanks to the Gougers' alternately tough and tender songs and roots-rock raconteur Randy Weeks' sarcastic musings.
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Sunday was the real capper, though. About 5 p.m., Rocks Off headed downstairs to the Continental Club, where Little Joe Washington was absolutely on fire. Celebrating his 70th birthday - word has it Washington began his afternoon by double-fisting shots of Cuervo - the dreadlocked, nearly toothless bluesman, in the words of a colleague, "rolls the Albert Collins thing, the Gatemouth Brown thing and the T-Bone Walker thing all together," which indeed he did - except at the volume and intensity level of, say, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix or Cream.
Even better, Joe's old bandmate Pee Wee Stephens got onstage for some vintage barrelhouse-piano blues, and when Washington needed a breather, guitarist Sherman Robertson made a rare local appearance for a few songs, capped by a devastating cover of Lowell Fulson's "Things That I Used to Do."
The Flying Balalaika Brothers, with Greg Harbar (right)
After that, it was hard to think things could get any more surreal, but they sure did when Rocks Off headed over to Under the Volcano for the Russian Spring Festival organized by the Houston Russian Cultural Center, which is based two doors down at the Caviart (get it?) gallery. We got there a little after 6 p.m., and Austin's Flying Balalaika Brothers had already been going strong since 3.
Joined by longtime Houston accordionist Greg Harbar of the Gypsies and Guy Forsyth bassist Will Landin on Sousaphone, the Balalaikas plowed through both traditional folk songs and more modern material with alacrity. It was a nice reminder that whatever cultural differences exist in the world, music crosses those borders like nothing else - sometimes the accordion in a polka or waltz had a conjunto flavor; other times the rhythms were more ska and reggae than Russian gypsy. No matter its country of origin, the music was cathartic and exhilarating throughout - and, thanks to the audience, embellished by some of the finest folk dancing Rocks Off has ever seen.
Then, after the audience begged them for one more - they literally would not let the Balalaikas leave the stage - the band obliged with a spot-on cover of Etta James' "At Last." At this point in Rocks Off's weekend, of course, that made perfect sense.
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