Houston International Festival Downtown Houston April 29, 2012
I like iFest. I'm glad it's here. It's not the kind of thing I'd like to go to every weekend, but once a year is about perfect.
One of the most interesting things about the festival is the way it's set up, as a nonprofit venture instead of a commercial enterprise. Besides keeping ticket prices down, that keeps corporate sponsors at bay, and you don't appreciate that until you see somebody's product shoved in your face at every turn or their logo slapped on every goddamn available surface (see: SXSW).
It also forces iFest to be creative with the talent they book. Although it begs the question of where they might put such an artist were they able to snag a top-drawer talent like Bruce Springsteen -- or even the relatively obscure Manu Chao, who has been on their wish list for years, would be a perfect fit and is at least in theory a little more affordable than the Boss -- iFest's limited talent budget means it has to rely on a combination of ringers who must get dropped into their lap by Buddha or Allah, and an array of dependable regional draws for whom familiarity breeds contentment rather than contempt.
And most of the time it works, believe it or not. One of the coolest things about iFest is that it's supposed to be educational, and actually is. It really does turn people on to new music. Like, I doubt that many people specifically came out Sunday to see Washington, D.C. reggae group SOJA, but all afternoon long, I kept seeing people wearing their T-shirts.
Young people, too -- people who aren't even old enough to smoke pot, let alone listen to reggae. (Yes, that was a joke.) By the way, have you noticed how many touring reggae bands come through Houston? Decent touring reggae bands? Not. Many.
Well, we got one Sunday. It would have been so, so easy for SOJA to be another group of white dudes in copious dreadlocks ("doo doo dreads," one humorous iTunes commenter said, when I looked up their new album, Strength to Survive) playing terrible versions of Sublime songs in between kicking around the hacky sack.
Instead they turned out to be a solid traditional roots-reggae band -- the hottest in the country, supposedly -- that were socially conscious, emotionally sensitive (lots of love songs) and environmentally aware. And, you know, not a complete snooze. SOJA incorporated bongos, squelchy synths and some fuzzy psychedelic guitar to give their rock-steady rhythms a different color besides green.
You already read about what a party War threw Saturday night. I don't think I've ever seen a blast of African-tempered funk like Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 threw down. Granted, the son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti did spend ten minutes singing about pot on "The Good Leaf" -- longer than even the most clichéd reggae band would do -- but he explained it fairly well: Marijuana is a force of nature just like an earthquake or tsunami, he said -- those things aren't illegal, so why should pot be? Write your congressman.
The real force of nature was Kuti's ten-piece orchestra, although I probably left out a couple of horn players in there somehwere. There was a gourd, wood block, two guitars, a bass, drummer, percussion, at least three horns and two female singer/dancers who helped Kuti strip off his shirt after a couple of songs in the Nigeria-like Houston humidity (to the delight of many in the crowd).
Together they created such a tidal wave of sound even Kuti himself could barely control it, contorting his body to and fro like he was tossed by a hurricane-force breeze. Really, he was.
It probably goes without saying that Kuti and Egypt 80 were making their Houston debut, and we are unlikely to see them come back for a good long while. On the other hand, the Texas Tornados, who closed out my evening on the Americas stage, will probably be back within the year. I hope so.
Even so, it's hard to think of the Tornados as the same good-time San Antonio party band they used to be, because they have endured so much loss -- losing first Doug Sahm, and then Freddy Fender. The other two, Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez, have weathered their share of health issues in recent years themselves, and in fact Jimenez was looking especially frail Sunday (if not sounding frail on old polka standby "In Heaven There Is No Beer").
But the Tornados give off the air that they will keep playing that Tex-Mex rock and roll until one of them keels over onstage. It doesn't matter if it's Shawn Sahm singing his dad's chugging "Is Anybody Going to San Antone" or "Adios Mexico," Jimenez's vocalist/apprentice Nuni Rubio taking over for Fender on the lovely "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" and "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," because the Tornados' music is now bigger than even the band members themselves.
That includes their supporting cast of Speedy Sparks, Louie Ortega and Ernie Durawa, three of the most underrated musicians in Texas history, except by their peers. So as long as Augie Meyers is still alive to sing dirty songs about Mexican food, he'll be making guacamole all night long.
Personal Bias: I like Houston, and I like festivals, as long as they don't annoy the shit out of the cranky old man in me that has been amplified by my recent heart attack. I used Sunday to test my pre-Summer Fest tolerance for outdoor music jags, and almost made it. It would have been nice to see Steel Pulse again, but they'll be back, probably at the next iFest or two.
The Crowd: However cool the music may be at iFest from year to year, the coolest thing about the festival will always be the crowds. Houston has very few events -- yes, even Summer Fest -- that really reflect what a diverse, cosmopolitan city this is.
Overheard in the Crowd: Nothing interesting, but I saw a lot of people wearing baby-blue Argentina soccer football jerseys.
Random Notebook Dump: E-mail me if you want to know Bruce Springsteen's approximate asking price to come play your festival.