Houston’s festivalgoers set their compasses east this weekend for a pair of events that delivered precisely what they promised. At the East End Street Festival, the vibe was local and centered on the Houston neighborhoods and businesses that make up this burgeoning quadrant of the city. A little over a mile away, but miles apart, Korean Festival Houston had a decidedly international flavor and celebrated an entire culture. Both events enjoyed good turnouts, helped by Saturday’s spectacular fall weather and plenty of interesting music offerings.
First we trekked east to Navigation Esplanade for the East End Street Festival and were welcomed by the aroma of sizzling fajitas from food vendors doing their best, right there in the shadows of Ninfa’s and El Tiempo. We were only hungry for music at that point, so we skipped the tacos and went right for the Sparky Parker Band. The Texas bluesman was playing to a small but attentive crowd that enjoyed covers like “I Shot the Sheriff” and some tunes from the guitar-slinger’s debut album, Sparky Parker Live in Houston. By the end of the set, we were all doing that thing bobbleheads do after a vigorous tap.
We redirected for The Skatastrophics’ set. We’re used to seeing these guys deliver a blend of reggae and ska in the darkened secrecy of Houston’s bars, so catching them out in the broad daylight was fun and different. With a broader audience than those who would normally seek them out, the band took full advantage, winning the older fans over with a ska-tinted version of the Beatles' “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” and catching the ears of the early-arriving Los Skarnales fans with dance-ready originals like “Made Now” and “All For You.”
While surveying the dance acts the festival offered, we saw a shirtless guy in shiny gold pants and sunglasses sprint past us. The first thought was, “Please let him be in a band,” and, to our delight, he was Preston Dow, the guitarist for Soul Creatures. It was our first time catching this funk band and we were completely won over by its musicianship and exuberance. It wasn’t just us, either. The group was the first of the day to gather a sizable crowd for its set, which thankfully was replete with original songs. I love a good, funky cover as much as anyone — and enjoyed the Creatures’ take on Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” — but too many bands of this ilk rely on covers instead of bringing something new to the genre. This is clearly one of the band’s strengths. Its original songs have positive themes, with titles like “Change the World” and “Dance and Love,” which played perfectly at an open air fest. Front man Russell Martinez’s infectious showmanship ensured that the growing ranks of “Creature Nation” were having a funky, good time.
The last act we were able to squeeze in at the East End fest was Muddy Belle, which self-describes as “rock n roll, Texas blues and soul, all covered in molasses.” Adding to the sweet stuff, the band actually features members named Ben & Jerry (guitar and drums and vocals, respectively). It’s got one of Houston’s most noticeable music figures, Bassman Pep, plucking out the backbeat. They were also heavy on originals, giving us some Black Keys-like grooves on songs like “Stealin From The Joneses” and “I Got Time.” There were some technical glitches in the set, but as Houstonians do, Muddy Belle powered through them and delivered something soulful enough to encourage a tween in the crowd treat us all to some break-dance moves.
Maybe it was Soul Creatures’ positivity, or the brilliant October climate, or maybe even the sign for a funeral home on Navigation that towered over us all reminding us to enjoy it while it lasts, but everything felt extra-alive at the East End Street Festival. That sensation was exponentially amplified a mile away at Korean Festival Houston, which had Discovery Green bursting at the seams with people. The crowd appeared to dwarf the one a few miles east, a notion that seemed confirmed by scanning the long, dense lines for food. Houston is a multicultural city and there doesn’t seem to be a dearth of Korean fare in town, but one wouldn’t know that by a glimpse of the many who gathered at the food tents and trucks for kimchi and bulkogi. And, who could blame them? The scents of spices drew the famished in, so much so that the food tents were shutting down long before the event’s headliner hit the stage.
Ahead of KRNFX, the YouTube sensation and festival closer, was Austin’s Maribel Rubio & 512 Sound. A few songs into her set, the difference in music here compared to the East End fest became apparent. Earlier, we’d heard lots of original songs written and performed by local bands. At K-Fest, the entertainers’ sets were primarily built of covers that casual listeners would know and appreciate. Rubio and her backing band gave the people what they wanted, taking turns at crowd pleasers like Steve Wonder’s “Superstition,” Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason,” and even “Dancing Queen,” a karaoke hall staple. There was something very Miley Cyrus about Rubio, which is to say she’s young, attractive, had a good stage patter but seemed aloof at times fiddling with her smartphone on stage. But, best of all, like Miley, she has a very sturdy voice and showcased it brilliantly. She sounded strongest and got well-earned applause for a winning rendition of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud.”
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Because K-Fest’s focus is on an entire culture of people, it offers more than just music. The daytime offerings were family friendly and included traditional games, arts and crafts and performances by heritage groups. Some of those offerings carried over into the evening and hit the main stage, which meant the music was interrupted by cooking demonstrations and martial arts performances. They were fine, of course, but were a little jarring for anyone searching solely for music. Fortunately, the festival finished strong with KRNFX, whose Internet fame and unquestionable talent had fans literally rushing to the stage for his set.
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Dressed in casual B-boy gear, the two-time Canadian beatbox champ wasn’t just remarkable at his craft, he was also personable and engaging. He thanked Korean-American Society of Houston for bringing him to town and asked the crowd how many were in high school, college or not in school at all, gauging his growing fan base. Then, he thrilled them all, no matter their ages, with original beats and beats recorded right there before us all, track by track, and looped until he was doing renditions of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em.” The crowd could be heard a block away, erupting in amazement when he did Ginuwine’s old-school banger, “Pony.”
It was a single Saturday, just one of 52 of them in Houston this year, one of the nicer ones weather-wise, and there was a lot of music to be heard. KRNFX, the out-of-towner who was welcomed with open arms, summed the day up for all the artists we caught and Houstonians we rubbed elbows with.
“Are y’all having fun?” he asked his capitvated crowd. “Me too.”