Previously, Rocks Off's idea about what a "festival" should look like, and what to expect, came from his experiences at Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza, various one-offs at Austin's Auditorium Shores and - though he's never been - what he's heard/seen/read about Jazzfest, Coachella, Bumbershoot, et al. Either first- or second-hand, he thus arrived at the following conclusions:
a) Festivals must take place on vast, treeless expanses of land, with stages placed so far apart they're almost in different area codes; and
b) The main, if not the only, reason people go to festivals is for the music.
At Rocks Off's first-ever experience at the Houston International Festival Sunday afternoon, though, neither one of those turned out to be true.
First of all, Rocks Off was impressed with the way iFest was laid out. Never having been before, he was curious how the organizers would cram several stages and innumerable merchants and vendors into an area that couldn't be much larger than half of ACL abode Zilker Park - and happens to be home to several rather large buildings that put space at an even further premium.
The answer should have been obvious: by utilizing every last square inch they could. Especially nice were the area around City Hall, particularly the Center Stage built partially over the reflecting pool and ringed by food and beverage vendors, and the Texas/Latin Zone, which managed to stuff two stages and a few merchant kiosks into the plaza outside the Jesse H. Jones Library.
Surveying the grounds also helped Rocks Off understand iFest's bookings a little better too. Even if it were to land acts like Spoon and Death Cab for Cutie, or Kevin Fowler and Cross Canadian Ragweed for that matter - and, as a nonprofit, in the unlikly event it could afford them - finding somewhere to put them would be a real problem. Rocks Off's best guess is that the largest audience area is the Bud Light World Stage in Sam Houston Park, which looked like it could accomodate maybe 2,000 or 3,000 people before crowd safety and comfort started becoming issues. In a festival setting, with plenty of teenagers and twentysomethings already among the near-ubiquitous families, acts like those mentioned above could easily draw twice that number.
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And some stages Sunday did draw significant crowds, especially Northern Ireland's Beoga, who provided some toe-tapping melodies for some of Houston's top Celtic dancers at Center Stage - even though, in the afternoon's only serious sound-bleed problem, those dancers could just as easily have been taking their cues from Big Sam's Funky Nation. Mariachi Los Arrieros' performance was so infectious about half of the 14-member ensemble eventually wound up in the crowd. Or, considering how cramped it looked onstage - it's a wonder the seven violinists were able to keep from bumping elbows - maybe there was just more room down front.
Other times, though, like for Quebec's Chic Gamine and Louisiana's Beausoleil - at first, anyway; the crowd started filling in Tranquility Park pretty well about the time Rocks Off decided to call it a day, with a few brave couples even daring to dance - the areas in front of the stages were about the least crowded places at the entire festival. Much more difficult to navigate were the merchants' villages, whether the area surrounding the Blarney Castle in the Ireland Zone in upper Sam Houston Park, the dozens of food/beverage vendors ringing the reflecting pool in Hermann Square or the merchants' stalls lining McKinney, Walker and Bagby Streets.
Even this made a certain kind of sense, though: This is Houston, after all, and live music is nice, but here it will almost always take a back seat to eating and shopping. Those of us reared on other festivals in other locales may have a hard time grasping this, but to its credit, iFest obviously does not.