Houston International Festival (Houston, TX)
There’s something about memory that does not love a festival. Could be the four days of 90-degree heat, or the inevitable intestinal slurry of sticked sausage and funnel cake and plastic-cupped $4 Budweiser, or the option-fatigue of negotiating 100-plus acts on ten stages. Whatever the cause, the result is blur.
But if this year’s installment of the annual Houston International Festival harbored no particular standout act — not among the No Depressionistas on the schedule, anyway — then it at least took the music out of its accustomed context (smoky bars and Lone Stars, etc.) and trotted it into the sunshine (downtown streetcorner stages, daylight sets for passersby, etc.) where it could see what ground might be held against the appeals and distractions of dozens of competing sampler platters of musical styles — many of which, in this thoroughly twang-acclimated town, carried the novelty advantage of being not from around here.
Each year, the Houston International Festival, true to its name, dedicates its focus to some distant nation or another; this year France got the nod. Regulars stymied by the unfamiliar are provided substantial doses of zydeco and Texana to calm the palate.
The HIF doesn’t have the profile, especially nationwide, of its chronological neighbor in New Orleans (JazzFest, April 26-May 5), or Austin’s SXSW dog-and-pony show every March, but like a lot of things that go on in this most out-of-the-loop of big cities, it packs more punch than the uninitiated might expect. And given the preponderance of choices, it was possible, with proper scheduling, to spend fifteen hours over two weekends without hearing hardly a peep of perhaps the only thing more reliably unappealing than the ever-present alligator-on-a-stick, which is, of course, French music.
The Texas Stage is where most of the country-rock types hung, and if there were none of the hotly anticipated names that have graced the Festival in the recent past (Ralph Stanley last year, Lucinda Williams the year before that), there was a steady stream of old faithfuls lined up in the wings, including homegrowns Jesse Dayton and Carolyn Wonderland.
Austin’s MVP sideman Stephen Bruton took a solo turn to fluff his recent disc Spirit World, displaying a bar-band soul that veered from tossed-off one-liner gems (“Her eyes were funny, like she bought ’em in a joke shop”) to “Right On Time”, which, with its “Summer Of ’69” echoes, sounded more Bryan Adams than Ryan. But Bruton the bandleader is too subdued to take full flight, and when he dedicated the new album’s title song to his lawyer (“I understand the girl eventually turned 18, so it was all OK…”), the joke fell flat here in the hometown of convicted kiddie pornographer Huey Meaux.
Alejandro Escovedo followed Bruton, backed by cello and keyboards, and fared better with live favorites such as “Castanets” and the children’s songwriting seminar chestnut “Sad And Dreamy” (about “hitting the big one-oh”). Escovedo may have lifted the line from a kid, but it was, he promised, “more profound than anything you’re going to hear today, and that includes Stephen Bruton.” True, it turns out, on both counts.
Down the street, crowds gathered to hear Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, perhaps the hardest, and likely the skinniest, working man in show business. Gate cut his first single in Houston for Don Robey’s Peacock Records back in 1947, and in the dozens of times I’ve seen him strap on that Gibson Thunderbird and puff that pipe (what’s in that pipe?), he’s never failed to ignite a crowd with his big-band-jazzed blues. No one today working makes a guitar squeal and cry like Gate, and no one knows how to punctuate those exclamations like his longtime saxman, Eric Demmer.
Alt-country came into focus during the Festival’s final weekend with sets from the Derailers and Reckless Kelly. The former’s twin-Telecaster attack cut through the ambient mugginess on new songs from Here Come The Derailers, shifting from traditional country to rockabilly-a-go-go with help from the singing pedal steel of George Strait bandmate Mike Daily. (The HIF boasted a wealth of stellar steel with both Daily and legend Herb Remington, who lent his talents to the first weekend’s Texas Playboys reunion.)
Still, the final Sunday belonged to Reckless Kelly, who did the Festival’s best job of inserting rock ‘n’ roll into a country sound that elsewhere seemed to be sliding inexorably back into pre-alternative traditionalism (not enough hot licks, too much lyrical cliche). Personal highlight: a rave-up cover of Shaver’s “Hottest Thing In Town”. Disappointment: a promise of bluegrass that turned out to be, sans mandolin or banjo, something that only an Alabama fan could consider mountain music.
But strict adherence to categories never had a place within the Festival’s m.o.; witness Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson conducting an all-star multi-culti cast in a tribute to the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. This was music festival as Chinese menu: select one style each from columns A, B, and C, go home full. And if the dessert course never arrived (final-day headliner Charlie Robison canceled at the last minute), that was hardly call for complaint. There was already too much music to properly digest, even if one could remember it all between the heat, the fatigue, and the slurry.