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Meet the Most Underrated Music Festival in Texas

Except for autumn, spring is festival season in Houston. This time of year most people can probably be forgiven for losing track of all the events in the area that take advantage of the agreeable weather and humans' unquenchable appetite for food, drink, fellowship and live music to wash it all down. Then again, the urge to celebrate surviving another earth cycle is probably as old as the changing of the seasons.

But one local event hasn't quite received the credit it deserves, especially for its musical merit. Within just a few years, the Texas Crawfish & Music Festival, an outgrowth of the nonprofit Old Town Spring Preservation League, has quietly emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the state's concert calendar. Spread out over this weekend and next, this year the festival will host some of Texas' top bands in both rock (Los Lonely Boys, Bob Schneider) and country (Jason Boland & the Stragglers, Kevin Fowler), plus an undercard full of up-and-comers: Austin's Shakey Graves and the Wheeler Brothers, Tyler's Whiskey Myers, Lufkin's Downfall Rising and even UK soul-jazz outfit The Filthy Six.

That's to go along with stalwarts like Dale Watson, Jesse Dayton, Bri Bagwell, Alejandro Escovedo and Heartless Bastards. Houston acts are prominently featured, whether rock (The Tontons, Dmitri's Rail, Fighting Gemini), R&B (the Suffers, Nick Greer & the G's) or country (Junior Gordon Band, Folk Family Revival). There's something for almost every taste, plus a few surprises -- and isn't that what every good music festival aims for?

Indeed, last year the TCMF managed to draw some 40,000 people (not counting the people partying in nearby Old Town Spring, too) despite losing one of its Saturdays to a wicked rainout. Considering it traditionally gets a fraction of the media coverage of similar but higher-profile events like Free Press Summer Fest or the Houston International Festival, that's nothing to sneeze at. And considering the advantages those two events enjoy, what's happening in Spring is that much more impressive.

The TCMF has actually been around since 1986, but its leap in visibility is largely the work of producer Dave Conway, who grew up in Old Town Spring but has only been with TCMF for two years. The organizers brought him aboard when they decided it needed "a little bit of a boost," he says.

"It had kind of leveled off with a lot of the same bands playing each year," Conway explains. "They basically wanted to the bookings of the artists and try to grow a little bit there, as well as just try to make a better experience for people coming out."

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The TCMF was able to score a few of out-of-state coups this year in jovial outlaw-country figureheads Charlie Daniels Band, alternative singer-songwriter Willy Mason and Iron Horse, a bluegrass band from back East known for its covers of everyone from Elton John and Led Zeppelin to Metallica and Modest Mouse. But otherwise, explains Conway, its nature as a fundraiser for Old Town Spring's advertising somewhat limits the festival's reach.

"It's really not a festival that people are working on year-round, where you can kind of get out in front of a lot of touring bands and time it to actually get on their schedules," he says. "The problem is that just because of the way it works, you end up starting out at a time when a lot of the bands that you might want have already dialed in what they're going to be doing around then."

So Texas bands are that much easier to get because they tend to be close by and easier to book on short notice, Conway adds. But they also help keep ticket prices down. At $10 for Friday and $13 for Saturday/Sunday, its affordability is one more thing making TCMF look even more competitive.

"It's not a high-dollar ticket; it's not an event that's known for selling out, so you don't have the rush to tickets that you would with, like, an event like Free Press," Conway says. "We've started to try to do some things to make it convenient, like add in presale parking to where you get to move through it faster, or presale crawfish where you don't have to stand in line with everybody."

Ah yes, the crawfish, the TCMF's other big draw. Conway says it's difficult to pin down exactly how much crawfish will be on hand at the festival -- beyond "thousands of pounds," anyway -- but those pesky mudbugs that have suddenly become the area's latest food craving will most certainly make their presence known. Sometimes from hundreds of yards away.

"I wouldn't say it's like, you know, the people in California living around the sriracha plant, where you start getting closer and it starts burning your eyes," reasons Conway, "but once you get close you can definitely smell it."

The Texas Crawfish & Music Festival begins Friday, April 25 at Preservation Park in Spring, with Dmitri's Rail, Fighting Gemini, Downfall Rising and MadSons. See texascrawfishfestival.com or the TCMF Facebook page for more information.

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