The Sick Old Man of the Festival Circuit

Dear Houston International Festival Foundation Inc.,

It was with great anticipation that I clicked over to your Web site to check out this year's music schedule. Over the years I have been to about ten iFests, and it's safe to say that this has been the defining musical event in our city year after year.

What delights would we have this year? Sadly, I must report that they are far too few.

Let's start with the good stuff. First, I commend you for moving back downtown. The urban setting defines the fest -- and having last year's shindig at Reliant Park was like moving the Masters to a putt-putt course.

And some of the bookings are truly first-rate -- especially Toots and the Maytals, Vishal Vaid, Zap Mama, Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali and, even though they're American, Taj Mahal and Ozomatli.

But then after that, there's a fall-off, little on the bill to justify the $10 walk-up tickets and the expensive concessions. Not that Grupo Fantasma, Delbert McClinton, the Stone Coyotes, Brave Combo and Iguanas are subpar bands -- far from it. It's just that they're all in Houston pretty often. And as much as I like both Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas and Ricardo Lemvo, they come to iFest every year -- and overfamiliarity breeds a certain sense of been-there-done-that.

And now we come to the locals. I think you've done a good job rounding up most of the top tier of the city's blues and zydeco talent, and seeing guys like Pete Mayes play big festivals in their hometown is always a treat.

But then there's the Flamingo Gardens Houston Showcase Stage.

It is my belief that just as iFest should bring the best of the world to Houston, so should it present the best of Houston to the world. But looking over this stage's talent list, I just can't say that this is getting done. At all. Of the 27 bands playing there over the run of the fest, I've heard of only seven.

And who exactly is Scott Essex -- the guy who co-booked this stage? I was shocked when I was told by your spokesperson that he is the owner of Flamingo Gardens -- the landscaping company that donated the materials for the palapas at iFest. I was told that he was a big music fan who remembered the old days of iFest, when many local bands played, and so you let him book his own stage here. Which could have been a good thing, if only Essex had demonstrated some knowledge of the Houston scene in the year 2005. But if you ask me, as a local talent buyer, he makes a helluva landscape gardener.

Or maybe it's me. Maybe I haven't heard of these bands because I've been sleeping at the switch in my four-plus years on the job here, not to mention my decades of living in this town as a music fan.

Not in this case. I Googled the bands I hadn't heard of. For some, this gig is their only presence on the entire World Wide Web. And of those that do have sites, I was relieved (as a professional) to discover that several were wedding and cover bands and thus not really part of my beat here at the Press.

But my relief as a pro is tempered by my disappointment as a music fan and, hell, as a proud Houstonian. This is a huge opportunity squandered for both fans of iFest and the top acts in Houston.

To wit: Where are popsters and rockers Tody Castillo, Los Skarnales, Chango Jackson, the John Sparrow, Arthur Yoria, 30footFALL, Moses Guest, Sugar Shack, Bring Back the Guns, Vatos Locos, Clouseaux, Gun Crazy, Fatal Flying Guilloteens, Irene, Michael Haaga, the Linus Pauling Quartet, Guy Schwartz, Pale, the Scattered Pages and Fondue Monks?

Where are country and roots acts John Evans, Hayes Carll, Jesse Dayton, Carolyn Wonderland, Mando Saenz, Sean Reefer & the Resin Valley Boys, David Brake, Medicine Show, Opie Hendrix, Greg Wood, Hilary Sloan, Miss Leslie and Her Juke Jointers, Lonestar Bluegrass, Clay Farmer and Davin James?

Where is there any hip-hop on this bill? Nowhere, that's where, and in a city with one of the most vibrant rap scenes in the country, that's pitiful. Hell, there's even a Punjabi rapper -- Deep -- living here. Why not book him, this being the year of India and all?

In short, where is the lifeblood of this city's musical pulse? Where are the rappers who are signing national major-label deals? Where are the bands that play the clubs in this city, night after night, week after week? Why aren't they given a chance to play at Houston's marquee event, and why have you given those slots to wedding and cover bands?  

Was it money that you worried about? You shouldn't have. Three quarters of those acts I rattled off would charge no more than $500 to play a gig that could offer as much local exposure as this one. Throw in some food and free beer, and you could probably shave $100 off that tab. Or more. Two of the artists in those lists above told me their bands would play iFest for free,and I asked only three what they would charge.

Even if you rounded up to 30 the number of bands, and paid them each the full $500, the talent on that stage could be squared away for the whole fest for a mere $15,000 -- which the first 1,500 customers in the gates on day one would cover.

And I have a hard time believing that the top 30 bands in Houston could not bring in that many people among them. And what's more, some of those folks would be young people, which brings up another point: I scoured this bill high and low, and it's hard to find anything on there, with the possible exception of Zap Mama, designed to attract anyone under 40. (That is, aside from the children's stage.)

And there also was a singular lack of hip and trendy indie acts. Shouldn't there be a stage for the hipsters, hosting bands like Bloc Party, Calexico, Clem Snide, Spoon, the Decemberists and the Arcade Fire, coupled with some of the local acts above? Admittedly, a stage like that could get expensive, but you disregard young music fans at your peril, and right now whole generations are ignoring this event in droves. And who could blame them? For the most part, it's about as cutting-edge as your uncle's Hawaiian shirt.

Anyway, back to my local-music point. I'll guarantee you that most music fans would be happier to stumble across, say, Tody Castillo on stage than they would if they came across Bad Bubbaz Bluez Dawgz huffing and panting through another cover of "Mustang Sally" or some fat tools from Channelview aping Hoobastank.

Sigh. Cities should nurture their top talents. That's why this bill frustrates me to no end.

Every year, we at the Press work damn hard to reward the best bands in the city at our Music Awards. And then after that, nobody outside of a few astute club owners picks up the ball. (Of all the bands on that stage of yours, only Drop Trio has ever won a Press Music Award, and only a couple have even been nominated.) I'm not saying we're the be-all, end-all in local music, but damn -- our winners have shown that they have a few hundred or thousand devoted fans here.

I've joked in the past that our winners are jinxed. It's not a jinx. It's just that as long as the few local music events bigger than ours continue to ignore our winners, there's nowhere for them to go but down. Or to Austin.

Which brings up my last reason I'm writing this letter: my fear for the continued existence of this festival. Over the years, it has provided me with some of my fondest musical memories. But right now, when I think of iFest, I keep thinking of that description of the Ottoman Empire in World War I: the Sick Old Man of Europe. Right now, this is the Sick Old Man of the Festival Circuit, offering too little of the world's best music, a bare sliver of the top talent from its host city and a tendency to skew toward 45-year-olds.

It brings up an alarming scenario. What if somebody in Austin decided to start their own world music festival? Look at the success of the Austin City Limits Festival. It came roaring out of the box in its very first year, surpassed iFest in national standing immediately and has yet to hit its peak. What if they decide to complement that fall fest -- which focuses on American music -- with a spring international music fest, taking advantage, as iFest long has done, of all the talent in the region that comes to Jazz Fest in New Orleans?

I'm a little leery about even putting that idea out there, for fear that someone might do it. But desperate times call for desperate measures. This festival is dying -- whether of financial trouble brought on by City Hall politics, or by poor booking, or by post-9/11 visa hassles for the bands courtesy of the INS, or a combination of all of that.

But something has got to get better -- or this fest will waste away and die. And the squabbles with City Hall and the INS are probably the hardest to win, so as a start, I advise, as your friend, that you begin booking better local bands.  

Concerned and eager for answers,


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