Houston International Festival Downtown Houston April 22, 2012
With a slight north breeze keeping festival-goers from broiling under a cloudless sky, Sunday's iFest turned into a perfect laid-back Houston day of rest and entertainment excess. It didn't hurt that the music lineup was both diverse and stellar, that there were virtually no lines and that things ran with an almost informal efficiency that is so typical of the Bayou City.
We started the day with Austin's Stone River Boys and the hundred or so souls mostly scrunched under the big live oak tree which offered the only shade -- shade and sunscreen being in high demand.
We hustled over to the Center Stage just in time to catch the last few tunes by Ecuadorian power trio Eljuri. Fronted by Cecilia Villar Eljuri, the band showered the crowd in energy and thumping Latino rock grooves, and the crowd returned love and cheers.
Another smart out-of-nowhere booking by the iFest folks, this band needs to play Fitzgerald's or the Continental. Soon.
Before the next musical round got underway, we needed fuel. After scouting the entire food court, we decided the smart thing was to get in the longest line, our logic being all these people aren't waiting for something bad. In ten minutes, we were seated at a picnic table with a picada (sampler) plate from Mi Pueblito, a Colombian restaurant on upper Richmond.
The little tub of green sauce was tart, not hot, and we dipped an odd square of something deep-fried into it. Voilà! Deep-fried pork belly! Shazam! The roast beef and deep-fried sausages were also the bomb, as were the little cubes of deep-fried potato and banana. Enough foodie talk.
Venezuela's Los Amigos Invisibles had played the large World Stage on Saturday, and they drew an excited crowd to the Center Stage on the courthouse steps Sunday afternoon. It was the hottest part of the day, but no one who crowded to the edge of the stage seemed to care as the six-piece rock-en-español/dance-music powerhouse whipped the crowd into a frenzy with just the kind of dance-funk Houston gets with one eye open. The audience partied hard, yet it was so laid-back for something so electric.
We hurried back to the Americas Stage to hear Jason Isbell, the former Drive-By Trucker who had one of the top Americana albums of 2011, Here We Rest. He opened with the frank "Tour of Duty" from the album, and it appeared that a big portion of the crowd knew the lyrics. Houston, we love you.
And they really knew lyrics when it came to his Truckers favorites "Decoration Day" and "Outfit." We wanted to ask Isbell about his Twitter war with Jerks Gently...errr...Dierks Bentley, but Isbell loaded out and vamoosed before we could locate him.
Eternal Tango followed Los Amigos on the Center Stage, and they drew as large and just as rapt a crowd as the rockers did. Several of maestro Hector Del Curto's tunes were accompanied by professional tango dancers, and the crowd was quietly riveted -- actually, it was one of those moments when the air goes out of the room -- by their performances.
An area opened up back from the stage and an impromptu tango dance hall came into existence, with numerous couples sliding and whirling expertly. The diverse, gently sun-drenched crowd was magnetized and enthralled.
It was a golden moment of a pretty golden day. Eternal Tango returns next week, and is reason alone enough to sample the wares of this year's iFest.
After tango, we hiked double time to the World Stage to hear the beginnings of New Orleans funk favorites Galactic. A New Orleans institution something like a rock band attached to a brass band, it didn't take the band half a tune to get every butt in hearing distance shaking.
And the place went pretty crazy when Corey Glover of Living Colour came out to take over vocal duties on the second song. Galactic was nothing but powerhouse.
We meandered over to the 29-95.com Stage and found our old friends Stone River Boys setting up for the final set of the day. We took the opportunity to check out the wares of the art vendors along the street and found several that knocked us out, including local artist Pen Morrison's works based on the guitars of famous bluesmen.
Her Lightnin' Hopkins piece was titled "You Can Steal My Chickens But You Can't Make 'Em Lay." Classic Houston. She also had works relating to Albert Collins and T-Bone Walker. We were also taken with Chicagoan Clifton Henri's intimate, highly personal -- and often amusing -- photographs.
The Stone River Boys kicked it off at the almost-empty stage behind the courthouse, and we bought a cold bottle of water and let Dave Gonzalez punish that Telecaster of his like it had betrayed his conscience. iFest director Rick Mitchell, whom we had run into several times during the afternoon, stopped to listen and enjoy a moment. He had the look of a satisfied man.
He should have. Crowds were robust but manageable, food was great, the music as varied and tasteful as you could ask for, the vibe was 110 percent Houston. Bravo, iFest. Magnifico.
Walking back to the rail line, we ran into Los Amigos Invisibles keyboarist Armando Figueredo, staring at his cell phone like it was a traitor.
"No, just looking for a Starbucks."
"I'm sure there's one close by. Nice set."