Saturday: iFest in Downtown Houston -- Los Lonely Boys, Los Amigos Invisibles, Etc.

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Houston International Festival Downtown Houston April 21, 2012

There's something beautifully eclectic about Houston's iFest. Only there can you drink a beer as you stuff your face with curry, shoulder to shoulder with a Buddhist, while listening to Hare Krishnas sing their hearts out. Okay, maybe it's not the only place to do it, but you'd be hard-pressed to find this anywhere else.

Saturday marked iFest's 35th birthday. Its first incarnation, according to the festival's Web site, was held in downtown Houston off Main Street in 1971. It was originally called Main Street 1, a Salute to the Arts, then the Main Street Art Offering, and wasn't dubbed the International Festival until 1987.

This year's weather conditions were better than last year's, with plenty of breeze to keep the sun at bay and make shaded areas an option instead of a necessity. As has become the norm, a number of streets downtown were closed off and lined with concession stands selling everything from native Indian and African jewelry, set alongside art galleries and food trucks.

A few minutes before their scheduled start time, Los Amigos Invisibles began playing. Their funky, danceable tunes brought the crowd to its feet almost immediately. Blending disco, jazz and Latin rhythms would be a train wreck for most groups, but this Grammy award-winning six-piece has earned its stripes, having performed in more than 60 countries since its formation 21 years ago. There was a little something for everyone, and the music seemed to perfectly fit iFest's mission of celebrating diversity.

On the 29-95 stage, meanwhile, the Texas Brass Band was paying mind to another kind of Southern-style music. The stage could barely hold all ten members of the band, but that didn't stop them from swaying back and forth in perfect, funky rhythm.

More movement would have been in the cards, had they only had the space. Nonetheless, their slower, bluesy songs had me closing my eyes and imagining myself sitting in the back room of a jazz club in New Orleans, smoking a cigar and drinking a mint julep.

Road trip, anyone? Bring your fedoras.

Hadden Sayers's performance was my favorite of the day. The Texas native, who now resides in Ohio, sounded (and looked) like a younger Tom Waits, à la "I Hope I Don't Fall in Love With You." His lyrics, especially.

Dripping with bluesy undertones, all of Sayers's music had the crowd roaring for more. If you haven't already heard of him, go buy his new album, Hard Dollar, and skip to "Room 155." The entire album is worth listening to, of course, but "155" is my favorite track (right now).

Near the end of his set, Sayers let his guitar down and stepped toward the front of the stage, leaving the microphone behind him. As his percussionist lightly tapped his snare and bass drums and his keyboardist took a break, Sayers cupped his hands around the sides of his mouth and belted out lyrics to the crowd, showcasing the power of his voice. And after his performance, he even made time to personally sell merch to and take pictures with his fans.

Jesse Dayton, having to compete with Los Lonely Boys, played to something of a smaller crowd just outside City Hall, but his Memphis-soaked, Austin-based and altogether assorted country tunes still had couples rising to their feet and dancing, while the rest of the audience laughed and cheered as he ran an aluminum beer can up and down the neck of his guitar, picking its strings with his right hand.

That takes practice, I assume. And someone should teach me.

Sayers later accompanied Ruthie Foster onstage. After singing "Everlasting Light," Foster told the crowd that "this is usually when we pass around the collection plate," a reference to gospel music. Lucky for everyone in attendance, no one had to be carried out by an usher. Foster's strong suit as a singer is in her ability to sing just about anything.

If her first song didn't make your ears perk up, chances are the next one did. I'm glad she calls Austin home and is close enough to (hopefully) visit regularly.

The Grammy-winning Los Lonely Boys closed out Saturday's festivities, expanding their already eclectic sound with an homage to Jimi Hendrix. With hints of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Santana, blues, country and an overall melodic sound that we Texans are proud to call our own, LLB proved that there's still a place for rock power trios in today's music industry.

By far, the Boys were the best-received act of the festival, garnering a crowd large enough to make us wistful about last year's Summer Fest and hopeful about this year's. I only hope that the weather is half as nice.

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