iFest's First Weekend Thick With Music, Humidity

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Lots more iFest in our slideshows: The bands, the performers, the crowds and even the food.

For something that was still going on 24 hours ago, the first weekend of the Houston International Festival sure seems like a long way away now. That's what happens when one of the most monumental events of your lifetime happens when all you're trying to do is wind down from a long weekend of outdoor music in a muggy Bayou City spring.

Now, in hindsight, iFest's choice of "The Silk Road: Journey Across Asia" as its theme this year seems especially poignant. If you need to brush up on your world geography, the Silk Road is a network of overland trade routes that has been in use since ancient times. Effectively, it forms a belt between the Mediterranean and China - making Afghanistan and Pakistan the buckle.

Albeit via California, Afghanistan is also the homeland of the Homayun Sakhi Trio, which performed Friday with the Kronos Quartet at the opening-night gala and again Saturday afternoon on the HEB Cultural Stage, which is where we saw them. Sakhi is a master of the rubab, a stringed instrument known as the national instrument of Afghanistan which sounded a lot like a banjo to our Western ears.

It was an all-too-timely reminder that music can create its own cross-cultural contexts where language, politics and diplomacy fail. The tuning, rhythm and instruments may be different - even strikingly so - than what we may be used to, but the desire to create something beautiful and personal, unique and universal, that says something about both its creator and its culture, is the same.

It happened two more times over the weekend, too: Watching a young student of the Wu Changlu School of Music plucking some beautiful harp-like tones out of a traditional Chinese guzheng - picture an overgrown dobro; it was bigger than she was - Sunday, and the hypnotic duet between saxophone and the zithery, gourdlike eponymous instrument of Senegal's Kora Connection Saturday.

That's what iFest is good at. That, and putting the native music of our own region on equal footing with the far-flung sounds from both its featured nations/diasporas and world-music perennials such as reggae, represented this time by the toasty Rootz Underground.

So this time our picks from the first weekend were Jimmie Vaughan, whose barbed guitar leads mingled with Lou Ann Barton's sultry vocals for an hourlong Texas-style R&B clinic Saturday evening, most of all on the house-rockin' "Boom Bapa Boom" and savory ballads "Teeny Weeny Bit of Your Love" and "In the Middle of the Night."

Top discovery this time out was New Orleans' Mia Borders and her gumbo-thick bayou roux of Lenny Kravitz blues-rock, modern soul and old-school funk, while Lil' Brian & the Zydeco Travelers gave us our zydeco fix and a little more funk via an appropriation of George Clinton's mission statement "P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)."

And now, Rocks Off would like to make what seems like our annual request that iFest stagger the start times of at least the Latin and Louisiana stages so they don't directly compete with the Bud Light World Stage. The festival is laid out over a small enough area that it's possible to catch 15-20 minutes of the acts on each stage in any given hour, but that's still a lot of walking around in some awfully humid weather.

And some people are going to stay planted in Sam Houston Park no matter what, but different start times could only have helped draw people over to acts like Borders and Houston's Espantapajaros, whose dense, measured, Black Crowes-like rock en espanol deserved more than the dozen or so people it drew Saturday.

It already works like that for the 29-95 stage on the steps of City Hall, where bands started on the half-hour Saturday instead of the hour. Then again, when a band like Houston's Chango Man is cross-pollinating cumbia with classic-rock warhorses like the Beatles' "Come Together" and Queen's "We Will Rock You," and injecting a little consciousness via its own "Cumbia Revolution," it's worth staying put no matter what else is going on around you.

But there was a lot, so Rocks Off Sr. asked our two youngest writers to come out to iFest and send us their impressions as well. We now yield the floor. Chris Gray

Besides being disgustingly sweaty for two days straight, I thoroughly enjoyed iFest. And honestly, the humidity didn't bother me as much as it did my friends and the performers, who were only occasionally given reprieves from the weather by short, sweet gusts of cool wind.

My favorite performances of the weekend came from Lil' Brian and the Zydeco Travelers, Mia Borders, Come See My Dead Person and Robert Cray Band. Brian and the Zydeco Travelers combined old-school zydeco with a newer, folksy kind of music.

It was Cajun enough to be authentic, yet poppy enough to get the attention of those walking by. It gave both the genre's enthusiasts and newcomers alike reason enough to stop and listen. Like with the rest of the weekend's entertainment, I watched as longtime lovers (and members) of the culture danced along to a familiar type of music, while the unfamiliar did their best to get lost in the beat.

On a related note, only at iFest will you hear Hari Krishnas chanting in a prayer circle while Outkast's "I Like the Way You Move" plays in the background, from a tent where people were shooting free throws... a hilarious, nonetheless accurate, representation of Houston's diversity.

Mia Borders' music got the crowd cheering and begging for more, delighting the crowd with her soulful jazz for an hour on the Louisiana Stage. Note to self: Get some rhythm, and learn to play bass. Then find a woman who can play guitar. Beautiful music will follow.

Having never seen Texas CIty's Come See My Dead Person, but having heard plenty of positive, albeit ambiguous, things about them, I was excited to finally hear them. Their sound was eclectic, but almost always upbeat. And nine members were huddled together on the small-ish 29-95 stage.

But this didn't stop them from effortlessly combining soaring vocal lines with high energy, fast paced rock and roll. From what I could tell, their sound seemed influenced by pirate rock, a la Dropkick Murphys, blended with folk and Latin rock. While the band transitioned into every song with ease, their overall sound was nearly undefinable. Look them up.

You won't regret it.

Closing out Sunday night, the Robert Cray Band took melancholic lyrics and set them above bluesy back beats. It all seemed to have something of a triumphant overtone, too. Songs like "Leave Well Enough Alone" are obviously sad, but the overall feel was that of an unbeaten man overcoming life's troubles. It was as if Cray and his band were saying, "Life can be hard, but you've got to keep on keeping on."

As if the music didn't make this evident enough, Cray thanked the crowd for its cheers, then thanked God for the breeze blowing through the Theater District. You've just got to appreciate the little things.

The only disappointment thing about iFest? The prices. Nine food/drink tickets cost $10, and a bottle of water and some fried rice cost 11 tickets, making it quite the expensive day out for anyone wishing to experience a little cultural diversity. And to get into the festival, you had to pay $18.

You don't even want to know how much beer cost. Let's just say it made House of Blues' prices look cheap. Matthew Keever

International Fest made me feel more American than I have ever felt before, even more American than when I went to a Trace Adkins military tribute concert at the Rodeo. It's a funny concept: Arranging a few representative "zones" organized by country, where each zone pays to get a small plot of land to sell culture-specific merchandise, as well as a sponsored tent/stage for native music.

At one point, I even thought that the "Louisiana" zone might have been created just to host the "Bacardi Gras." Anyway, back to the music.Saturday, I listened to Chango Man sing/scream songs about Frida Kahlo: Dope. Also dope: At the HEB Cultural Tent, Homayun Sakhi Trio ended their "Music of Afghanistan" by saying: "We forgot! One last thing... Taylor Gang over everything!"

No laughs from the crowd, but an enthusiastic "woo!" from me. "Just kidding, we have CD's over there." Best part of Saturday: Going to Fadi's Caravan Tent and getting to see Atash, a band from Austin specializing in Middle Eastern music fused with Western classical music.

Sunday was set aside for the Mike Stinson Band; they played for a freakin' hour and a half outside of City Hall and it was incredible. They even played some Howlin' Wolf. It's saloon-style honky-tonk with lyrics like, "Stop the bar, I'm gettin' off and goin' home", and "I'm gonna do it, but I don't have to like it."

Those phrases so often go hand in hand. So, despite feeling weird about iFest as a whole, the "world music" was choice. Allison Wagoner

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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