"When you say 'Reliant Park,' everybody that you talk to thinks it's gonna be over there -- that hot, black asphalt. No wind, no shade. They don't know about this place."
So says Houston International Festival organizer Jim Austin. The two of us are standing in a field off South Main that will be iFest's home for at least the next five years. The skeletons of stages and the wooden frames of Thai-style palapas are dotted here and there over the 27-acre space, which is a lot greener than I had been led to expect. A December editorial in the Houston Chronicle stated that the festival would be held "in a parking lot interrupted by small areas of grass, young trees and retention ponds," and they're right on two of those counts. The trees are young and there are retention ponds, but the grass area encompasses at least ten acres, which is probably more green space than iFest had downtown. Sure, the Texas and Latin stages are in parking lots, and despite its lingering ramshackle 1950s-era charm, South Main is relatively sterile compared to downtown.
Will this field be iFest's burial ground or a launching pad? This year's model will go a long way toward determining that. By now, most of you know the backstory -- about how iFest changed when it started charging admission in 1995, about how City Council recently wanted to quintuple the fees levied on the event to $250,000 per year, about how Smith Street (which ran through the heart of the old festival grounds) got torn up. It's become fashionable to hate on iFest. When even the Chronicle says you've gotten too big and too costly for your own good, you clearly have a media relations problem.
And so Austin is trying to set the record straight with me. "When we were downtown, we had to come up with so much money to pay for stuff that is already in place here," he says. "Every single light pole, you'll see an electrical outlet. That means we don't have to lay electrical down. We don't have to bring in expensive generators that are loud and smelly."
At first, when he's talking about how much money he's going to save, you think, "Well, that's all well and good, but what's in it for me, the festivalgoer?" But he does have a point about the generators -- I had never really noticed it before, but come to think of it, there was a certain ambience of dynamo hum in the background at iFests past.
He's also eager to tout the Reliant site's easier access. There's ample parking on-site, and there will be shuttles to the festival gates from the light rail stop a few blocks away on Fannin. (And I might add, three bus lines down Main. Or if you really got the proverbial wild hair, you could rent a room at the nearby Palm Court Inn, a pristine, golden-age motel complete with tiki hut-lined pool. In contrast to downtown, those who really want to make a weekend of iFest will have no shortage of affordable crash pads in the immediate vicinity.)
Then there's the matter of the fencing. "We loved the experience downtown, we loved the buildings downtown, but we would have to rent fencing," Austin continues. "It was ugly, expensive, and it looked like we were caging people."
And people resented the fact that he was fencing off streets that were paid for with taxpayer dollars. The Reliant site is completely fenced in already. Somehow that fact changes the whole vibe -- though whether for better or worse remains to be seen. At the last few iFests downtown, you felt like you were paying to use your own city, that it was a grassroots event that had somehow grown way too expensive. Here, there's no illusion that this is anything other than an attraction, like the rodeo. Who knows whether that honesty of presentation will diminish the event or help it to grow.
The relative lack of shade is the main geographical drawback at Reliant. The park's young oaks are too few and too scrawny to offer much relief from the heat, so Austin is touting the numerous misting tents and various other "shade structures" that will be up and running. One thing that he does have going for him at the new site that he didn't have downtown is unobstructed access to the winds. On the day of my visit, a steady westerly breeze is blowing, the temperature is in the mid-70s, seagulls are laughing and wheeling in the skies, and it's hard to imagine the heat being a factor. But even though iFest is starting about a week earlier than normal, it probably will be.
Thailand is this year's spotlighted country, and while there will be plenty of Thai food, Thai boxing, Thai elephants, Thai booze, Thai arts and crafts, and Thai ballet, there is no Thai pop or roots music on the bill whatsoever, and relative to iFests past, there's not that much foreign music. But there is a lot of good music, so let's look at it day by day.
Opening day -- April 17 -- features no foreign music at all, unless you count the bands that hail from Texas but play music in Spanish, which I don't. Come to think of it, there's not much on the first day's bill that really makes you sit up and take notice. The United We Funk All Stars -- which comprises former members of the Gap Band, S.O.S and the Dazz Band, among others -- are virtually the only act you can't see either here or in Austin or both on any given weekend. (This group includes such old reliables as the Gourds, Bob Schneider, and Grupo Batacha, and popular local youngsters the Handsomes and Drifter.) There's also a heavy Mexican and Mexican-American current -- Avizo, La Conquista and Grupo Vida are all on the bill. But overall, this would be the day to go if music is not the primary iFest draw for you. If you're the type who likes the food and drink or the shopping or the kid stuff, but don't like the crowds, this is the best day to go.
April 18 is a guitarist's delight, especially for those of a bluesy bent. When Henry Garza of Los Lonely Boys, Rick and Mark Del Castillo of Austin flamenco-blues-rockers Del Castillo, and the legendary Buddy Guy are all on the bill, it's safe to predict no little shredding (not to mention lecturing, in Guy's case). As for more international, less ax-oriented stuff, Zimbabwean festival staple Thomas Mapfumo and Blacks Unlimited, the innovative New York-based Brazilian-style percussion ensemble Beat the Donkey, local salseros Mango Punch, and outstanding New York-based Afro-Cuban funksters Yerba Buena are all scheduled to perform. Beat the Donkey is led by Brazilian native Cyro Baptista, who has either toured, recorded or performed with everyone from Milton Nascimento to Paul Simon to Wynton Marsalis. (He looks a little like a Frank Zappa of the drums.) Yerba Buena -- with members originally from Venezuela, the Virgin Islands and Cuba -- is one of the most exciting young Latin bands in America.
April 24 is zydeco/alt-country day. Dora and the Zydeco Bad Boyz, Step Rideau, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas, and Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band will perform one after another on the World Music Stage. (Calling zydeco "world music" just because of the occasional French lyric bugs me -- especially in Houston. It's as ludicrous as taking your passport to Louisiana.) Alt-country fans will also be spoiled for choice: Davin James, Emmylou Harris, Jesse Dayton and the Flatlanders are all on the bill. Those looking for more exotic fare will have to content themselves with Houston's own Norma Zenteno, the mesmerizing Austin-based Grupo Fantasma and iFest regular Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca. Yes, this day's a little thin in that department, but to be fair, the incredible modern son orchestra Cubanismo was also slated to play. Thanks to Dubya's diplomats in the State Department, the Cubans were denied visas.
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April 25 is the most international and eclectic of the four days. There's soca from Barbados in Krosfyah, neo-soul from England by way of Miami in 16-year-old singing sensation Joss Stone, hip-hop from the L.A. barrios in Akwid, reggae from South Africa in Lucky Dube and from Houston in the Neutral Sisters, Afropop from Senegal in Baaba Maal, country from Austin in Reckless Kelly and Cory Morrow, salsa from Texas in Grupo Ka-Che and La Tribu, and conjunto from San Antonio in Los Desperadoz.
All in all, that's not a bad lineup, so if iFest fails at the new site, it won't be because of the music. It could happen because of the ticket price -- $12 for adults, which is anybody over ten. Or because of the $7 parking fee. The soullessness of South Main is a threat, as is the possibility that it will somehow be ten degrees hotter here than it was downtown. Or maybe none of that will happen and iFest will thrive in the new digs.
"This is like a city, not an event," says Austin. "We print our own currency, we have our own security, waste disposal, restaurants, stores There's no way we're gonna get through this and have nobody complain. There's no way that's gonna happen. I just don't know what the complaints are gonna be."
Say what you will about Austin and iFest, but he hasn't watered down his commitment to cutting-edge talent -- it's still an event that books acts that aren't yet huge, at least in America. And as long as that doesn't change, iFest should survive just fine.