Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws
American Music Stage
Saturday, April 15
If the dancing feet near th stage, itself covered with banners from the likes of KILT, KPRC and Oldies 94.5 (media outlets that wouldn't know an accordion from boudin) were any indication, Step Rideau's brand of R&B zydeco was a hit. And that's the real gauge of a zydeco show, right? How the people move and groove. The type of zydeco Rideau and his Outlaws traffic in remains largely nouveau, though it finds receptive audiences in the open-minded fans who attend the festival. Heavy on the funk, short on the skipping beats, rubboard rhythms and extended accordion riffs, Rideau's take ain't your father's zydeco. Yet it still works.
Most of the material Rideau performed came from his second CD, Standing Room Only, and his fourth, the 1999 release I'm So Glad. The band leader/native Louisianan/ current Houstonian made sure to identify his latest album repeatedly and even directed people to his band's Web site. (For sure, that ain't how Clifton did it.)
By the time the band played its second song, the title track of Standing Room Only (which the band boldly performed a second time toward the end of the hour-long set), the audience had about reached maximum capacity. People navigating the slender natural walkway that had formed across the lawn among the throng would pause just to see what Rideau was up to. The walkway became more clogged as the set went along.
The funk was probably what attracted most. Still, if Rideau hadn't been delivering the goods, you know the crowd would've been about as attentive as small kids at a Philip Glass retrospective. Funk was clearly the heart of the third song, "Twist and Shout." During the up-tempo intro, as the band built layer upon layer of drama, Rideau punctuated the ends of full bars with "uh"s and "oh"s à la James Brown. At these moments you thought Rideau was going to start singing, but all you got was another "uh" and another instrumental verse. Holding audiences in suspense this way is a gimmick funksters and even disco divas employ regularly. Rideau proved a master. -- Anthony Mariani
Texas Music Stage
Saturday, April 15
It was a rare event: standing on a corner downtown and being neither too hot nor too cold. There was even a steady breeze blowing. As if that weren't remarkable enough, Eric Johnson was standing on a stage nearby, and you had to pay only seven bucks for the privilege of hearing him.
Now calling his outfit the Eric Johnson Vortexan Session with Jerry Moratta and Trey Gunn, the native Austinite was making a stop here, one of four Texas dates over the past week. The band appeared happy on stage, smiling broadly at the instantly warm reception before diving headlong into an hour and 15 minutes of flawless music. Songs such as "Righteous" and "Trademark" saw Johnson hunched over his guitar, seemingly engrossed in conversation with it, while the instrument played blues-meets-technical-wizardry virtually on its own, as if preprogrammed.
In this regard, the gig had as much in common with a solo classical performance (one by, say, Yo-Yo Ma or Ursala Oppens) as it had with what is typically thought of as a "rock" show. Technique mixed perfectly with warmth, while power and softness moved hand in hand. Moratta (drums) and Gunn (bass, touch guitar) -- whose combined résumé includes stints with the likes of King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello -- gelled completely, not only with each other but with Johnson as well. All three often wandered mid-song back to the drum riser and communed over the music. The audience members, meanwhile, grooved along, looking for any opportunity when Johnson actually looked up to hold their hands aloft and bay their appreciation.
"Cliffs of Dover," the popular number that seemed the perfect complement to the weather, prepared the crowd for the set's final flourish. But almost as if to say "Don't forget, Texas blues is still in these bones," Johnson closed down his set for good with an up-tempo two-stepper chased by a barroom stormer.
Putting the debates about Johnson's place in the guitar universe aside, there could be no argument on this evening that he created a sound so enveloping that the whole world seemed okay. Not a bad trick, that. -- Les Mixer
World Music Stage
Saturday, April 15
Show-and-tell always makes for a great gig. Cameroon's Prince Eyango, his band and his spectacularly clad, thousand-watt dancer at one point invited the sizable crowd at the World Music Stage to learn the makossa, which describes not only the type of music Eyango specializes in (contemporary Afro-pop) but, obviously, the dance. One, two, three steps to the left; one, two, three steps to the right, then hunker your shoulders down and repeat. Apparently overcome with joy at having learned the steps, an athletic-looking lad jumped on stage with Eyango, and the band and began busting out hip-hoppish moves to the dancer's earth-shattering pelvic thrusts. The young man and a female dancer faced each other and exchanged steps with the ease with which an older, less flexible couple might exchange pleasantries. A steady, feel-good atmosphere coursed through the entire set.
Unlike even the most seasoned performers, the 38-year-old Eyango, who has come into prominence only over the past couple of years or so, maintained his audience's attention by often switching tempos and types of songs. Jumping from up-tempo dance (Eyango's Brazilian drummer would establish a rhythm by spurring in eighth notes on the snare while adding accents here and there) to swaying ballad, Eyango came off as an endearing performer with his feet well grounded in tradition. In keeping with the African style, Eyango's guitar playing was soft, almost inaudible, and mostly cheerful, with lots of major chords and repetition.
Though Eyango, lean and with a quick smile, sang in his homeland's native tongues, Bamileke and Douala, and in Cameroonian English and French, language didn't seem to be an impediment to anyone's good time. As with most African pop stars, Eyango deals with social issues relative to his country, where untold numbers of children die daily. But by virtue of the Prince's upbeat style and soft demeanor, who would have known? Certainly not any of the folk in one of the nation's fattest cities. -- Anthony Mariani
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