Over the next two weeks, Rocks Off will be previewing acts performing at this year's Houston International Festival Saturday and Sunday and April 24-25 broken down by genre (loosely, anyway) and with a guest pick from a true insider: iFest Director of Performing Arts Rick Mitchell. Today, the Caribbean - it is the festival's featured region this year, after all... Neutral Sister: Subject of a 2003 Houston Press cover story, the Neutral Sisters' hip-hop/reggae vibe found a warm welcome both in Jamaica and their hometown, and their album Live-N-Direct - featuring go-to producers/rhythm section Sly & Robbie - might have poised them for a Sean Paul-style breakthrough into the pop mainstream. Sadly, just before the sisters were scheduled to leave on tour, rapping half Bianca lapsed into a diabetic coma, which lasted a year until she passed away in November 2008. But Kyra, the singing half, soldiers on, and earlier this year recut the song she wrote in Bianca's memory, "Hold On," into "Hold On Haiti" to benefit victims of January's devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince. Trinidad-born rapper Mr. Blacc Sheep, who guested on "Hold On Haiti," again joins Kyra at iFest in front of the Yard Band. (6 p.m. Sunday, April 18, Center Stage) Mighty Diamonds: Remember this song? It's based on "Pass the Kutchie," and became a surprise early-'80s hit for UK tykes Musical Youth - and a period-soundtrack staple ever since - once someone wisely decided it might not be such a good idea for a bunch of prep-schoolers to sing about passing a giant spliff around and changed "Kutchie" to "Dutchie," which is supposedly some sort of "cooking" pot. Cough cough. Anyhow, the group that originally recorded "Kutchie," the Mighty Diamonds, is from the same Trenchtown section of Kingston as Mr. Bob Marley, and has been around since the late '60s. Inspired by the sweet, sweet Motown harmonies of the Temptations, Miracles and Four Tops, Rastafarians Judge, Tabby and Bunny Diamond - shockingly, not their real names - have incorporated elements of American R&B into their sound from time to time and to various degrees ever since, but besides "Kutchie," remain best-known for rootsier recordings like 1976 debut Right Time and several albums for the imprint arm of legendary Kingston studio Channel One. (4:30 p.m. Sunday, April 18, Bud Light World Stage) Rick's Pick Easy Star All-Stars: This band is known for taking classic stoner rock albums and turning them into classic stoner reggae albums for the New York-based Easy Star label. Dub Side of the Moon, the band's dead-on reinvention of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, is one of the top-selling American reggae albums of the past decade. Radiohead (Radio Dread) and the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Dub Band) have received similar treatment. What fans of these albums may not realize is that the studio geniuses behind these albums can also take it to the stage under the banner Easy Star All-Stars, featuring a dub-wise and dread line-up of Jamaican and American musicians, male and female. This will be the band's Houston debut. (April 17, 4 p.m. Bud Light World Stage)
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