If the first weekend of the Houston International Festival felt like a detour down Canal Street, the second evoked the festival's emphasis on "Spotlighting the Caribbean." Summer picked this weekend to descend two months early, as it tends to do, resulting in increased traffic and a heightened sense of anticipation.
For two weekends of the year, we're reminded of Houston's status as a world-class city, when bands from around the globe converge among the urban silos of downtown to share a glimpse of their homeland. Saturday and Sunday performers saw Houston as we like to be seen.
After Saturday's highlights, including Taj Weekes and Adowa, Zydepunks and the double-barrel finale of George Clinton and P-Funk on the Bud Light World Music Stage and Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women on the Louisiana Stage, with Houston's Texas Johnny Brown and Los Skarnales adding homegrown blues and ska perspectives, respectively, Sunday brought a relaxed mélange of melodies from Africa, Cuba and los dos Americas
As an aggressive breeze tempered the potent rays, Cuban bandleader and bassist Monte Adentro, vocalist Lourdes Jimenez, and their six-piece combo heated up the RoomStore Latin Stage with Jimenez's Puerto Rican standards as well as songs drawing on the Afro-Cuban sons montunos
for which Adentro is known.
Across the grounds on the Bud Light, Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal and his eight-piece band offered a loosely constructed jam of rhythmic west African pop, at times striking across-the-pond parallels with Adentro's set. Perhaps no band captured the flavor of the festival quite as effectively. A chilled-out crowd lazily knocked a multicolored beach ball and a fuchsia soccer ball overhead as families retreated beneath the canopy of oaks near the adjacent pond. Displaying not a care in the world, single-digit kiddos chased a duck and her fuzzy yellow offspring foraging for fallen kernels of caramel corn and other culinary detritus.
Cecil and Rainel Pino Orchestra, the Houston House of Blues house band, which hails from Venezuela, Colombia and Puerto Rico, adjusted the tempo to salsa on the Latin Stage with a percussive makeover of A Taste of Honey's "Boogie Oogie Oogie." Jimenez stuck around to check out the band as the dance floor filled again with couples and families.
Pausing briefly at the Sisters of Avalon belly-dancing soiree at the Sisters Cities Wine Café Stage, Aftermath realized she had stumbled upon an iFest best-dressed list of sorts: Twenty- and 30-somethings who likely work in places where Ann Taylor and Windsor knots are de rigueur paraded around in pirate getup, animal pelts, kilts, and incongruently placed punk studs.
All while a scantily-clad dancer deftly handled a scimitar using her stomach muscles. It isn't clear what any of this (other than the Jean Lafitte wannabes -- or maybe they were Somalian-pirate wannabes, it's hard to tell) had to do with the Caribbean region.
Approaching the World Music Stage for Steel Pulse's finale, Aftermath found her nostrils invaded by secondhand smoke. The rigors one must endure to earn a living. If the scent of ganga circled in a light breeze when the Mothership landed Saturday evening, it hung in the air like yesterday's one-night stand as the British reggae stalwarts took the stage.
Calling the mix of stoners, rastafarians, couples and families to action in "Jack Sprat" and invoking amusement in "Here Come Rasta Man," frontman David Hinds incited the crowd, inspiring that hippie dude who seemed ubiquitous during last year's Free Press
Summerfest to seek his own rhythm as only white guys know how to do. Blues harp blower Sonny Boy Terry joined others kicked back on the lawn among a crowd that seemed more subdued than the gangsta-heavy mix that dominated Clinton's show.
A few New Orleans Hustlers brass band members who performed the previous weekend showed up to check out the Rebirth Brass Band
on the Louisiana Stage. This and other closing sets wrapped a quarter-hour before the official closing time of 8 p.m.
As things drew to a close on the HEB Cultural Stage, D.R.U.M. found its own crowd, providing a local alternative to Steel Pulse. The de-facto reggae band in Houston dressed a classic Clapton tune in dreads, justifying it, as if justification were necessary, with, "If Eric Clapton can take a Bob Marley tune, turnabout is fair play."
An ensuing hot-and-cool "Layla" improvisation, feedback-laden Fender dueling with tenor sax, ranked with Alvin's "Marie Marie" among this year's finest iFest moments.