The 34th Annual Festival Chicano kicked off Thursday night, smack dab in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month (which is actually stretched over two months; you know how we do it). Icons of Tejano, conjunto and mariachi music will take Miller Outdoor Theatre's stage the next couple of nights to the delight of throngs of la raza.
Opening night started strong with Shelly Lares, Sunny Ozuna & the Sunliner Band and David Lee Garza y Los Musicales, and Houston fans of these acts didn't disappoint. They gobbled up the free tickets for covered seating (up to four per person and available on show day, as always) and crowded the hill with lawn chairs, blankets and coolers. By the time I arrived, I was parking nearly at the Houston Zoo's front gates.
Because I thought the show started at 7 p.m. CST (Chicano Stroll Time), I arrived late and missed Lares' entire performance. I did speak with several "Shellians," avid fans of the San Antonian with the powerhouse voice, and learned she was excellent.
I was especially excited to see Sunny Ozuna take the stage and did manage to take in a good chunk of his set. He was in fine form, dressed to kill and sounding as strong and soulful as ever. To see him at all was a comfort to his fans -- some who have listened to his music since the late 1950s when his band, the Sunliners, were the Sunglows -- because late last year he suffered a mild heart attack.
Sunny is held in high regard in our household. The rumor is he performed at my parents' wedding way back in the day, at Galveston's old Moody Center (not the new, fancypants spread with the pyramids). By that time, he's already scored a major crossover hit, his biggest, 1963's "Talk to Me." I remember plenty of Tear Drop Label 45s in our record collection, as well as the Smile Now, Cry Later album. Its cover features the same comedy and tragedy masks that once adorned the Miller Outdoor Theatre façade.
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Sunny Ozuna was a musical hero to the night's closing act, Tejano superstar David Lee Garza. The accordionist extraordinaire has been at it since 1972 and his band, Los Musicales, has been a virtual farm team for Tejano vocalists. Ram Herrera, Emilio Navaira and Jay Perez, who closes the festival Saturday night, all came from the Musicales ranks. Juaquin Cura deftly handled last night's vocals, seemingly comfortable stepping into the shoes of Tejano greats who came before him.
While opening night had a decidedly San Antonio feel to it, Friday's festivities begin with Zenteno Spirit, the late Norma Zenteno's band, opening. Elida y Avante, featuring Tejano songstress Elida Reyna, follow and Tejano legends Little Joe y La Familia close the night.
Horn-heavy Tortilla Factory Featuring Charro Negro opens Saturday night's performances before giving way to "La Voz de Oro," David Marez. The night closes with long-running Tejano Male Vocalist of the Year Award winner Jay Perez.
The variety in these bands -- from old-school conjunto to the funkiness of a band like Tortilla Factory -- shows the assimilation associated with the Chicano culture. On opening night, there were fans in oversized cowboy hats and Wranglers singing along, as well as one guy wearing a Kid Rock t-shirt.
Ozuna epitomized that assimilation best on opening night, looking out over a sea of young and old fans who represented what he started with crossover music more than 50 years ago. They came to hear "Talk to Me" and "Carino Nuevo" songs that straddled both sides of the border. Sunny closed his set with a medley of "My Girl" sung in English, "Chiquito Pero Picoso," in Spanish and Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" to throw a dash of Louisiana into the mix. That beautiful mixture of those elements is about as Texan, or Tejano, as one can get.
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