Yes, it was hot at iFest this weekend. Houston hot. Sunday afternoon, partway through Lucinda Williams' surprisingly nostalgic set, both the temperature and humidity were in the low 90s and Rocks Off felt like we were losing weight by the gallon.
But the thing that stood out to us most about the Houston International Festival's second and final weekend of 2011 was how easy it can be to drop that "International" out of the equation. And how satisfying - even international - a "Houston Festival" can be.
Unlike last weekend, Rocks Off did not (accidentally or on purpose) stumble across anything as alien to our Southwestern ears as Kora Connection or the Homayun Sakhi Trio. We sat and watched Bollywood Blast's surreal and fairy tale-ish performance for a few minutes, and walked through the castle-like Great Wall of China replica, where the gong about two-thirds through was especially popular with the kiddos, if not so much any adults within earshot.
But the most exotic thing we heard this weekend was Red Baraat, a New York-based Indian-American group that describes themselves as "Bhangra funk," but sounded to us like a polyrhythmic New Orleans brass band whose esprit de corps springs from ragas instead of second-line parade marches. Someone at iFest must have agreed with us, because after double-dipping at the Bud Light World Stage and Fadi's Caravan Tent Saturday, there they were on the Louisiana stage Sunday.
Maybe we're just spoiled, because all the international flavor we needed this weekend came from local bands we've seen umpteen times. As usual, Los Skarnales triangulated tropical cumbia, Jamaican ska and their own trademark East End pachuco boogie to a fine decimal point, frenetic front man Felipe Galvan acting as a one-man welcoming committee. (See you on Friday, guys.)
Blaggards, meanwhile, stitched a Celtic corker into Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and a country shuffle into Thin Lizzy's "Whiskey In the Jar." Brandi Belle Clarke's fiddle acted as the high-powered sewing machine, while front man Patrick Devlin whipped his hair hard enough to spin the clock back to ...And Justice For All. Even The Octanes added some Tex-Mex San Antonio stroll to their 80-proof rockabilly/roadhouse-country cocktail.
Curiously enough, the only real local misstep we saw was Grandfather Child, who were uncharacteristically erratic and hesitant on a song that moved (perhaps a little too far) into smoothed-out Steely Dan territory. Lucas Gorham's crew recovered nicely on Stonesy slow blues "Waiting For You" and its stompier flipside, "Dog Water," though, and whatever that Prince thing was they were doing when we walked up, it made Rocks Off wish we had gotten on the train a little sooner.
That left this year's two crown jewels, Joe Ely and Williams, who each flipped the iFest script somewhat. Instead of bringing the world to Texas, both have been bringing Texas to the world for more than 30 years now.
The two Americana icons' festival-closing sets on the Bud Light World Stage weren't quite interchangeable, but they were close, not least because Ely guitarist David Grissom emerged to take Williams' new guitarist Blake Mills to blues school on her encore of "Joy" and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." Lucinda repaid the favor a little later on, coming out for an all-smiles duet with Ely (and a hug) on Townes Van Zandt's "White Freight Liner Blues."
Williams' set was much heavier on older material than we thought - "Can't Let Go," "Drunken Angel," "The Night's Too Long," "I Lost It," "Changed the Locks" - but only because her new album Blessed hardly takes a back seat to even such a lofty catalog as hers. From that, about halfway through, we got the teeth-baring "Buttercup," which Williams introduced as the only "bad-boy" song on the album (before the now-happily-married singer reassured her fans there were plenty more where that came from), and hushed blues "Born To Be Loved," which had the same pillow-talk intimacy as "Essence."
In between, there was lots of talk about how happy she was to be back in Houston, stories about Blaze Foley - the "Drunken Angel" himself - and the sweet-n-nasty sting of "Honeybee." Rocks Off was happy to hear those old songs for two reasons: a) They were obviously a huge "thank you" to her Houston fans who have supported her all these years; and b) although "Crescent City" is the only one we'd never heard live before (we think), Blessed is already such a huge success in the AAA/Americana world that we expect to hear a lot more from that one come ACL Festival time.
That's just a rumor, by the way, but a pretty safe bet. Ditto for Ely, it turns out, because he's got a new album too - Satisfied at Last, due out in a couple of weeks on his own Rack 'Em Records.
Its title basically doubled as the theme of Ely's set Sunday. His "Reunion Band" also played two new songs Sunday, the self-explanatory title track and "You Can Bet I'm Gone," which Ely said was inspired by a story he read in a small-town paper about a dedicated skeet shooter who asked that his ashes be ground up into shotgun shells for his friends to fire off at his funeral. Sounds like fun.
Billy Joe Shaver's "Live Forever," which made a sweet-natured, light-fingered encore, is also on the new record. In between, the five-piece band alternated heavy riff-rockers like opener "Lord of the Highway" and "All Just To Get To You," with drawn-out blues like "Midnight Train," featuring mesquite-smoked sax from sometime Rolling Stones sideman Bobby Keys, and "Boxcars," which came with a surprise walk-on from its author Butch Hancock.
The set wasn't quite the five-alarm barnburner Ely and his band (minus Keys) gave iFest donors and other honored guests at Rockefeller Hall in February - there was too much solo ground to cover between Grissom and Keys for that, such as on a sprawling "Letter To L.A."
But as the band simmered through "Dallas" and "Cool Rockin' Loretta," and the sun set on iFest and a sweaty Houston Sunday, it was more than enough that Rocks Off and the others in Sam Houston Park had both Ely and our little swampy corner of the world all to ourselves.
Almost, that is - like last weekend, we also asked our two most recent paduwans to come along and tell us how iFest looked from their eyes. Chris Gray
It isn't every day that you're treated to music crafted by one of the Rolling Stone-certified best guitarists in the world, but that's exactly what Houston got Saturday night. And damn it all if we weren't all moved beyond words.
Despite a crackling speaker as Robert Randolph & the Family Band began their set, Randolph sang of good times and freedom, keeping a smile on his sweaty face for an entire hour and a half while he strummed his sacred steel.
They played "The March," a five-minute instrumental that had the crowd dancing, for the first time since before the Sept. 11 attacks. It was a fitting time to play such an upbeat, joyous melody.
Randolph began bringing people, including a young boy who couldn't have been over 15, out of the crowd and onto the stage, where they were given a guitar and a chance to play alongside this former Eric Clapton opener.
Those of us close enough to the stage may have permanently damaged our hearing, but we were all smiles doing it. Having already restored our faith in music, Randolph & the Family Band still came out for an encore as countless Houstonians chanted, "One more! One more!"
Even after the encore, it seemed clear that everyone in attendance would have been more than happy to listen to the Family Band for at least another hour or so. But any displeasure of Randolph leaving the stage was short-lived, because it wasn't even 30 minutes before Michael Franti & Spearhead came out.
"Everyone deserves music," Franti sang as bright lights lit up the night sky. "Even our worst enemies, Lord. They deserve music, sweet music."
From rhythm-and-blues infused rap music set above and rock-and-roll guitar riffs to reggae in its truest form, Spearhead covered it all, getting a rise out of the crowd with every song.
The audience's favorite line of the night must have been in "East to West," when Franti said, "Life is too short for just one decision/ Music, too large for just one station/ Love is too big for just one nation, and God is too big for just one religion."
How would one define Spearhead's music? Franti put it best himself in just a few words: "It's rock and roll with a whole lotta soul."
Meanwhile, on the 29-95 stage, Emory Quinn was impressing a much smaller crowd with his raspy vocals and Southern-rock backbeats. This was the tone of the 29-95 stage all weekend: Underappreciated and overly talented.
Tyagaraja, Grandfather Child and Buxton are all far too talented to be playing for so few people. But that didn't stop any of the performers from putting on strong showings, keeping old fans and familiar faces happy and garnering the attention of at least a handful of passers-by. And when it really comes down to it, isn't that what every local and regional band is striving for?
They're baby steps, but triumphant ones nonetheless. As the current godfather of rap, Jay-Z, once asked, "Which would you rather be, underpaid or overrated?"
For the time being, we're content with these overly talented musicians being hometown heroes. And we'll enjoy the hell out of them before the rest of the country wises up and begins to love them the way we do. Matthew Keever
The last weekend of iFest seemed even hotter and more humid than the previous opening weekend, but despite my biting sunburn and embarrassing bank-account balance due to excessive coupon purchases, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Saturday was the brightest, hottest day at the festival and most of the people there were fighting to find any piece of shade they could. Practically none of the stages were shaded or had any covering except for the actual stage itself. Because of this, I again spent a considerable amount of time in the Caravan Tent.
I watched the entertaining Moodafaruka's Hidden Veil, a Houston-based world-music trio, play first. They usually perform under the name Moodafaruka, but they added a new percussion guy for the festival and thus the Hidden Veil was formed.
In between their original compositions, the second-generation Russian-American guitarist gave the audience history lessons about traveling gypsies. He asked us to express our gratitude not by clapping or saying "Holy shit, did you see that?" but by yelling, "OPA!" which was "the magic word."
After Moodafaruka, I wandered back over to the Louisiana stage to catch the "Americana Bayou" music of the Honey Island Swamp Band. Bassist Sam Price was rocking some overalls and huge goggles around his neck-the kind that reminded me of the music video for "Mo Money Mo Problems."
All of the members in the band are from New Orleans except lead singer Aaron Wilkinson, who is from Florida. Wilkinson played the mandolin, guitar, and even the harmonica - so while he's not Cajun, he's Cajun by association. Price is actually from Slidell, which is not too far from Hahnville, where my family in Louisiana lives.
I went back to the Caravan tent in time to see Space City Gamelan, an Indonesian ensemble featuring metallophones, xylophones, drums, and gongs. I felt like I had gone into a trance - or perhaps it was just heat exhaustion - with the rhythmic, resonating sounds from the instruments. There were no vocals, although occasionally the group does use both vocals and strings, with the exception of some talking in between songs.
Sunday, I brought my mother out to the festival to celebrate her day, thinking she might get some kind of discount because she's the best mom in Houston. Evidently, everyone thinks the same thing about their own mommies, and the people at admissions weren't budging.
We watched some dancing at the Asia Center Stage for a while and then caught Riyaaz Qawwali, an Austin-based group led by Sonny Mehta, who performs the traditional devotional music of Qawwali. Translated, Riyaaz Qawwali means "practice Qawwali" and the genre is very popular in the Punjab and Sindh regions of Northern India.
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Mehta, the group's vocalist and composer, was very appreciative of the receptive crowd, who included some of his family and friends. But even the strangers were friendly, like the hippie who approached me in the Louisiana Zone and talked to me about the 60's.
Peace to you, David.Allison Wagoner