The Best of iFest's First Weekend: The Wailers, Fatoumata Diarawa, etc.

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Forro In the Dark Fans expecting to hear gentle renditions of the lilting folk melodies of northeastern Brazil from Forro In the Dark were probably initially shocked, but ultimately awed, by the New York City quintet's high energy and relentlessly rhythmic live set. The group played both days of the festival's first weekend, performing on both the Bud Light World and Center stages and adding a lively workshop set for good measure.

Each appearance offered the multitude of dancers who soon gathered an excellent opportunity for a musical workout, provided they could meet the challenge of keeping up with the spirited onslaught of sound from the stage.

Jorge Continentino, playing the pifano, a Brazilan wooden flute, instead of the music's traditional lead instrument of accordion, set the pace while percussionist Adriano Santos, on the zabumba, a sort of strap-on smaller bass drum, gave the music its distinctive beat. Guitarist Masa Shimizu added another layer of rhythm in addition to the foundation of insistent drums and booming bass behind the trio.

The rapid-fire flute work of Continentino, who also added some sax, and the propulsive polyrhythmic creations conjured up by Santos made for a muscular modernization of the forro musical style but the band also remained true to its roots by performing a classic tune by Luis Gonzaga, the genre's foremost popularizer in Brazil. MICHAEL POINT

Luther & the Healers Houston's own Luther & the Healers took the Houston Press Rocks Off Texas stage at iFest on Saturday afternoon, and it quickly became apparent why these guys are a mainstay on the local blues scene. From the soulful, growling vocals to the howling guitar licks and the thick, steady bass groove, these guys are experts at their craft, incorporating the subtle nuances of each blues region with ease.

Led by frontman Luther Rada and his right-hand bass man Magic, these guys led the audience on a musical tour that ventured across some of the more well-noted blues areas; from Memphis to New Orleans and across Kansas City, the Healers covered a solid range of styles without neglecting our good ol' powerful Texas blues.

The response from the crowd to hits like King Floyd's "Groove Me" and the ever-popular "Stand By Me" was flat-out endearing; it was a dance party that even drew in some of the volunteers. At one point there was even some air bass playing going on, and I can honestly say that I appreciated the hell out of that. Very rarely is there a deviation from the old standard air guitar, but you haven't lived 'til you've seen someone air-slapping a bass guitar.

So thanks, Healers; a whole lotta blues and a little air bass made for a great Saturday. ANGELICA LEICHT

Fatoumata Diawara The first Houston performance by young singer/songwriter Fatoumata Diawara, an Ivory Coast native born of parents from Mali, introduced local fans to an ascending talent of considerable proportions. Diawara clearly captivated the curious and seemingly converted more than a few with her uniformly engaging set Sunday afternoon on the Bud Light World stage.

Demonstrating an assured stage presence befitting her film and theater background Diawara performed a set deftly combining style and substance. And with a drummer from Togo, a bassist from Cameroon and a French guitarist, Diawara's band was arguably the most international of the festival's opening weekend.

Beginning with a quiet confidence and just her solo electric guitar Diawara ultimately energized the set, and the audience, to conclude with songs that had her dancing across the stage to the accompaniment of sparkling guitar work.

Diawara's set, including songs such as "Blissa," "Clandestin" and "Sowa", drew primarily from her dazzling debut album, Fatou, but the live versions were more electric, immediate and accessible. Most dealt with the severe social problems of Mali and she explained their origin and intent before playing them. But while the subject matter may have often been serious, the music itself was almost always satisfyingly celebratory. MICHAEL POINT

Jeffrey Broussard & the Creole Cowboys Zydeco Force's accordion master and front man Jeffery Broussard, who won 2008's Accordionist Of The Year at the Zydeco Music And Creole Heritage Awards, played a handful of Cajun-flavored blues, from beneath cowboy hats and plenty of shade at the Houston Press Rocks Off Texas stage Sunday afternoon, bringing audience members of all ages and ethnicities to their feet.

While the weather wasn't as fitting as it usually would be in Houston in April, the music was swampy enough for everyone involved, as Broussard led his band with soulful vocals and his accordion, while the rest of his band worked over their fiddles, guitars and the drums.

It was true enough to its roots that enthusiasts soaked it all up, while the rest of us in attendance -- most of whom were in attendance to celebrate Houston's diversity and unfamiliar with this kind of music -- found it catchy and accessible enough to enjoy, even if we only stopped in for a song or two. MATTHEW KEEVER

The Wailers Forced to improvise by the ongoing construction in Sam Houston Park, iFest has moved the Bud Light World Stage this year, which resulted Sunday evening in a rainbow coalition of fans clogging Tranquility Park between the shallow pools, trees, VIP pavilion, and one knob-like grassy knoll. The relocation turned out to be appropriate, as the Wailers brought one love during their funky reggae party, which turned out to be more than just a perfunctory greatest-hits set as it bobbed through "I Shot the Sherriff," "Lively Up Yourself," "Three Little Birds" "Jammin'," and so forth. They gave us everything we could have wanted to hear, in fact, except "No Woman, No Cry."

It wasn't missed. Front man Koolant Brown did a better than passable Bob, founding Wailer Aston "Family Man" Barrett supplied an unearthly, reassuring, eternal pulse on bass, and even an hour wasn't enough. The crowd urged the Wailers back onstage, and they obliged with a tender, heartfelt acoustic version of "Redemption Song" that could have been Brown solo, but it was hard to tell because there was a long way between the knoll and the stage, and a lot of happy, mellow people in between. Finally, the Wailers let the people go with an "Exodus" that -- wide and deep as the Red Sea -- was truly Biblical. CHRIS GRAY

James Hunter Six I initially plopped in front of the James Hunter Six at our very own Houston Press Rocks Off Texas Stage, because the soul band seemed like an oxymoron in the midst of the Brazilian-themed festival. (I'm rebellious like that.)

Hunter, along with his five band members, took over their little section of iFest with confident strains of boogie music that got the initially seated audience up rather quickly. It was surprising to hear a proper British accent from lead man Hunter after a round of naughty-boy boogie tunes, but that's the joy of coming across a new band. Compared to his singing voice, Hunter's accent in was an oxymoron as well, albeit a pleasant one: a raspy, wailing tenor that was a rare treasure, like taking in his entire 26-year discography over a 30-minute set.

In the end, thank goodness for rebellion. ALTAMESE OSBORNE

While most iFest attendees were listening to The Wailers - and understandably so, because they're, well... The Wailers), I found myself pleasantly caught off guard by the soulful vocals and jazzy instrumentals of the James Hunter Six. Hunter's voice sounded out of place Sunday afternoon, but not off. Walking by, one might think he was listening to music from another era - perhaps a better one, musically.

The rhythm-and-blues style of Hunter's band, coupled with their stage presence and swagger, are all clearly influenced by the '60s, and were good enough to garner Van Morrison's attention and get Hunter on tour with The Belfast Cowboy back in the '90s. After only 80 minutes of his music, I plan to submerge myself in this guy's work for at least the rest of the week. Hopefully, he will make his way back to Houston sooner than later. MATTHEW KEEVER

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