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.
Up in Spring, a relatively little-known music festival brings in some top names.
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?
Indeed, last year the TCMF managed to draw some 40,000 people despite losing one of its Saturdays to a wicked rainout. Considering it traditionally gets a fraction of the media coverage of higher-profile events like Free Press Summer Fest or the Houston International Festival, that's nothing to sneeze at. And considering the advantages those two events enjoy, what's happening in Spring is that much more impressive.
The TCMF has actually been around since 1986, but its leap in visibility is largely the work of producer Dave Conway, who grew up in Old Town Spring but has been with TCMF for only two years. The organizers brought him aboard when they decided it needed "a little bit of a boost," he says.
"It had kind of leveled off with a lot of the same bands playing each year," Conway explains. "They basically wanted the bookings of the artists and try to grow a little bit there, as well as just try to make a better experience for people coming out."
The TCMF was able to score a few of out-of-state coups this year in jovial outlaw-country figureheads Charlie Daniels Band (who performed last weekend) and alternative singer-songwriter Willy Mason (this Saturday). But otherwise, explains Conway, its nature as a fundraiser for Old Town Spring's advertising somewhat limits the festival's reach.
"It's really not a festival that people are working on year-round, where you can kind of get out in front of a lot of touring bands and time it to actually get on their schedules," he says. "You end up starting out at a time when a lot of the bands that you might want have already dialed in what they're going to be doing around then."
So Texas bands are that much easier to get because they tend to be close by and easier to book on short notice, Conway adds. But they also help keep ticket prices down. At $10 for Friday and $13 for Saturday/Sunday, its affordability is one more thing making TCMF look even more competitive.
"It's not a high-dollar ticket; it's not an event that's known for selling out, so you don't have the rush to tickets that you would with, like, an event like Free Press," Conway says. "We've started to try to do some things to make it convenient, like add in presale parking to where you get to move through it faster, or presale crawfish where you don't have to stand in line with everybody."
The Texas Crawfish & Music Festival's second weekend begins this Friday at Preservation Park in Spring. See texascrawfishfestival.com for more details.
East Coast indie-folk musician Steve Gunn draws from some pretty exotic influences.
One of the perks of interviewing musicians is soaking up their insider recommendations. For instance, Kurt Vile couldn't recommend his friend and former Violators bandmate Steve Gunn highly enough during our interview last fall. Vile's tip didn't disappoint, thus introducing us to Gunn's hypnotizing psych-folk repertoire.
"Kurt's great," Gunn says from his Brooklyn home during a recent phone interview. "He's been really supportive."
Like Vile, Gunn was raised near Philadelphia, and his typically acoustic songs are tempered with improvisational segues and otherworldly drone. He credits his music's palpable international influence to his discovery of jazz while attending college at Temple University. That fusion of his Americana roots with his lush ethnic inspirations makes Gunn's music particularly multifaceted. But listeners to his latest album, 2013's Time Off, might be surprised to learn that Gunn's musical foundation wasn't established in classical-music courses or honed abroad, but in the hardcore punk band he was in while in high school.
"We were so terrible," he laughs. "We could barely play our instruments. I begged my parents to let me go on this small tour, and they agreed. Anything outside Philadelphia was a big deal for us then, so we played in people's basements for a few days. Pretty hilarious."
But Gunn's hardcore days were brief. "I'm so far away from that now," he reflects.
"After high school," he says, "I got really interested in jazz — particularly in John Coltrane. Listening to him and to his ethnic influences led me down the path of exploring classical Indian and African music, which I got really into. I've been interested in that ever since."
With such precise emphasis on shaping the intricate guitar-focused aspect of his songs, Gunn's singing took a back seat to the music until recently. Time Off is the first album to more prominently feature Gunn's vocals.
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"I always thought of myself as a guitar player first," he explains. "I spent years playing loose, improvised music, wherein I did some singing, but I pursued it only lackadaisically."
The lack of vocals in Gunn's songs essentially allowed his complex guitar playing to be showcased first; his vocals add another dynamic dimension to his music without distracting from his underlying guitar proficiency.
"I used to be super-nervous about singing," Gunn admits. "I'm a pretty quiet guy, so it took me a long time to get away from the fear of singing. I'm still working at it."
Steve Gunn plays Mango's, 403 Westheimer, Sunday with special guests The Young. See oddhours.net for more details.