A New, Down-Home Festival Houston Can Be Proud of

Houston is justifiably proud of its reputation as an international city, a reputation as hard-earned as the millions of dollars that change hands here each day and one that seems to be growing as quickly as the city itself. But if there's any kind of downside to that reputation (even if it's a small one), it's that culturally Houston's cosmopolitan aura can have the same effect most big cities have on their surrounding countrysides -- all those bright lights tend to block out what happens on the back roads.

That's why the Houston Creole Heritage Festival's apparent success is so gratifying. This is a vibrant culture that is 100 percent homegrown on the Gulf Coast, defined by its lively music and equally tantalizing food, but one that eschews mainstream attention and is thus often dismissed as rural and backwards by outsiders. But despite iffy weather, and with not nearly as much publicity as the weekend's higher-profile Lunar New Year celebrations, the first-year event drew a respectable crowd to Discovery Green for a few hours of zydeco, fried catfish and not much else.

That was more than enough to make it one of the more pleasant afternoons we've spent downtown in a while. Organized by the nonprofit S.H.O.P Ministries (Sweet Hour of Prayer), it was free, which of course is always a plus, but the lack of distractions was easily a blessing compared to more elaborate festivals.

And this one was scaled back almost to the bone. The soccer field next to the stage area hosted maybe ten vendors, but unless you were in search of a print dress bearing Bob Marley's likeness, you were limited to watching the music or standing in line for the catfish (which was delicious) or the Creole chicken in the next stall. It was even difficult to ascertain where all the cans of Bud Light were coming from; not being a drinker, though, we didn't investigate too closely.

But mostly it was great to head downtown and enjoy several hours of free zydeco. Both acts Rocks Off saw Saturday, Step Rideau & the Zydeco Outlaws and Dikki Du & the Zydeco Krewe (J. Paul Jr. played later on in the evening), played for well over an hour, sets that never flagged in energy and inspired plenty of dancing, whether of the line or two-step variety.

In relative terms, stylistically Rideau's Houston-based band was perhaps rootsier, working in country waltz "Let's Talk About Old Times" alongside the bluesier "City Girl" and relentless "Step's Boogaloo." But by the time their 60 minutes and change was up, "Standing Room Only," the title song from the Outlaws' 1998 CD, might as well have been called "Dancing Room Only."

Dikki Du, however, looked more toward New Orleans in his set, working in "Iko Iko," Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya" and the Meters' "Hey Pocky Way" into the opening moments. Dikki is a member of Southwest Louisiana's legendary Carrier family, formerly headed up by late patriarch Roy Carrier and based in Lawtell outside the historic town of Opelousas.

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With his scene-stealing "Uncle Charles" furiously scraping away at his rubboard, by the time Du and the Krewe were finished, they had schooled the growing crowd in not only his dad but a number of other zydeco greats -- Rockin' Sidney, Boozoo Chavis, John Delafose and Beau Jocque, not to mention B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby," Bobby Blue Bland's "Turn On Your Love Light" and even a reggae-spiced "My Girl."

It's worth noting that it's possible to see zydeco acts of this caliber almost any night of the week in Houston, plus Saturday mornings at Cafe 4212 and the multitude of trail rides in the area. However, those sets at dancehalls, restaurants and juke joints like Mr. A's in Fifth Ward can be steamier and less PG-rated than Saturday's fare. But zydeco was born with a smile, and its easy appeal was certainly reflected in the festival crowd -- toddlers to the elderly, curious high-schoolers and conventioneers, and experienced line-dancers both black and white. Putting it front and center on downtown's front lawn is hardly a bad idea at all.

It must be a sign of how in-demand Discovery Green -- which could really use some rain, by the way -- really is that this festival was booked a full four weeks out from Mardi Gras. But for those of us who appreciate good zydeco (not to mention good fried catfish), the good times couldn't have been rolling any harder if it had been scheduled on Fat Tuesday itself.


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