Houston International Festival Downtown Houston April 28, 2012
It's hard to know what to experience first at iFest. Long before you reach the gates, the smell of a tremendous variety of meats and vegetables being smoked, grilled and fried fairly carries you inside, and the mingled strains of a dozen genres of music, both live and recorded, waft from every direction.
It's a fitting, disorienting introduction to Houston's annual downtown celebration of cultural eclecticism.
My first stop at the fest was the Bud Light World Music Stage in Sam Houston Park, an open, manicured oasis in the shadow of the Gulf Freeway. The sun was hot and bright on Saturday, but a persistent breeze turned the park's shady spots into cool, pleasant places for couples and families to stretch out on the grass.
The first act of the day that I caught turned out to be the most interesting. Bombino is a young singer and guitarist from Niger, and the spirit of his desert homeland loomed large during his afternoon performance.
The songwriter began his set on acoustic guitar accompanied by a Fender electric and traditional drums, including a djembe and a strange gourd-like bass drum I'd never seen before. Pounded with the heel of the hand, it functioned like an ancient stomp box, propelling the music along.
Bombino showed off some nifty finger-plucking on exotic tunes rife with blue notes. It was a neat illustration of just how far and wide the influence of the blues has traveled in the past 100 years or so, but you definitely won't be hearing these acoustic licks over at Shakespeare's Pub anytime soon. The crowd grew as he played, drawn in by the hypnotic rhythms of the hand drums.
After about 30 minutes of captivating acoustic Bedouin blues, Bombino turned up the volume considerably. The guitarist plugged in, and his band ditched the hide skins for more conventional rock instrumentation.
Turns out Bombino has studied his Jimi Hendrix discography as thoroughly as any American teenager, and the electrified power that exploded from his band's amps was made all the more impressive by its juxtaposition with the acoustic stuff. Maybe this guy could fit in at Shakespeare's after all.
The only problem with the breadth of music on display at iFest is the impossibility of seeing it all. I tore myself away from Bombino's electric set to catch the Carnival Guitar Duo at the HEB Cultural Stage, but they were packing up by the time I made it over there. Instead, I moseyed over to the 29-95.com stage on the steps of City Hall to take in the end of Dharma's performance.
As I walked up, Harry Sheppard was in the middle of a pretty great vibraphone solo. Cold beer and a divine breeze had the assembled music lovers in the best of moods as his four mallets danced across the keyboard.
When Sheppard's set with flautist Bob Chadwick wrapped up, I did a little wandering. On the midway set up down Walker Street, live pan flutes at one booth mixed with Caribbean hip-hop blaring from one a few tents down. As I rounded a corner, both dissolved in the thump of Chicago blues playing over a PA system. Not exactly an everyday experience, no matter where you come from.
At 4:30 I headed back over to the 29-95 stage to catch local mandolin master Rich DelGrosso. DelGrosso played a set paying tribute to Houston blues icon Lightnin' Hopkins, and he and his band had feet tapping and heads nodding as the afternoon threatened to turn into evening. The breeze blowing through was heavenly as I slouched in one of the plastic lawn chairs set up beneath the live oaks outside City Hall.
I heard "Shotgun Blues," "Mojo Hand" and "Automobile Blues" while I watched the people pass by. Guitarist Tony Vega was cookin'. DelGrosso promised to bring out Milton Hopkins, Lightnin's famous cousin who's played with B.B. King and a bunch of other greats, but I wanted to experience more of the fest -- particularly the food. I headed back over to the Bud Light stage and grabbed some curry goat from the nearby Agape Kitchen tent. You don't get that at Buzzfest.
Onstage, Chico Trujillo was making quite a ruckus. The Chilean cumbia-rock practitioner had a very nice crowd dancing to an orgy of percussion layered with brass, organ, ska guitar and even some prominent slide-whistling.
The upbeat Latin rock tunes went over real well, particularly an interesting psychedelic passage that made me wish I'd seen more of Trujillo's set. The stage's MC promised he'd be paying a visit to the Continental Club soon, so it appears I'll have another shot at it.
After sampling fried cheese on a stick (cheddar!) and hoofing it across the festival grounds, I found another shady spot near the Americas stage and settled in for a lively batch of zydeco from Lafayette's own Lil Nathan and the Zydeco Big Timers. Lil Nathan, as it turns out, plays one hell of a mean accordion -- several, actually.
A predominantly black crowd clustered under the live oaks to enjoy his nimble squeezebox runs, and it wasn't long before old folks, young folks and even younger folks were tearin' up the grass. Nathan's washboard player was so much fun to watch that he should probably have his own band.
By now, the festival seemed to be winding down a bit, and I wondered if everyone had decided to drive home for dinner. Come to find out, they'd all headed over to the Bud Light stage to catch War. The classic '70s funk-Latin-rock band drew the largest crowd of the day by far, fairly packing out Sam Houston Park.
Bandleader Lonnie Jordan might have been the only original member onstage, but the audience could have cared less. They wanted to hear "Why Can't We Be Friends," "Spill the Wine" and the rest of the band's classic radio hits, and War delivered. Jordan's band of ringers know exactly what they're doing, and the group remains as culturally and sonically diverse as ever.
The crowd for this show was mostly older -- fortysomethings mainly, some with kids in tow. They were partying it up like teenagers, though, boogieing like they hadn't danced in ages. "This Cisco Kid" had everybody on their feet, and by the time the band struck the opening notes of "Lowrider," the park had become more of a block party than a music festival.
Each member of the band took an extended solo during their introductions in the middle of "Lowrider." The harmonica player's rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" had people high-fiving all around me. I decided to call it a day during the drum solo and heard War insert a snippet of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" before capping off the day's music.
It was that kind of day -- you were never quite sure what you were going to hear next. I'd seen six bands representing at least six different genres, and I hadn't seen half of what was going on -- not to mention there was still more to come on Sunday.
In the end, though, iFest isn't about trying to cram as much music as possible into a single day. It's about hanging out downtown with some of your favorite people and stumbling across something you didn't know you wanted to see, eat or hear.
Judging by the easy smiles and laid-back gaits crowding the streets on Saturday, that seemed to be just fine with everybody.
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