Musical quandaries/Hooked on Lobos or growling with Hooker, fest offers high notes
By RICK MITCHELL, Staff
The good news is that John Lee Hooker and Los Lobos appeared at the Houston International Festival. The bad news is that they performed at the same time.
At 9:30 p.m. Saturday, with all other stages shut down for the day, many festival-goers faced a tough choice between Hooker's ageless blues on the Festival Stage and Los Lobos ' multicultural rock on the Latin Stage.
Of course, such scheduling conflicts are common at major music festivals, from the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans to the JVC Jazz Festival in New York. But what made this decision all the more agonizing was that Hooker has announced plans to retire from touring at the end of this year, while Los Lobos is preparing to release this month what is already being hailed as the finest album of the band's career, Kiko.
Fortunately, there were plenty of music fans downtown for both acts to share, as the International Festival continued to draw at a record-setting pace.
Estimated attendance Saturday afternoon was down from the previous weekend's average of 250,000 a day, but the crowd seemed to swell rapidly in the cool of the early evening. Any concerns that the civil unrest in Los Angeles might spread to Houston and disrupt the festival proved unwarranted. The festival ended Sunday night.
At 8 p.m. Saturday, the Cajun/Zydeco and World Beat stages reported near-capacity turnouts for headliners Wayne Toups anBeat Temple, respectively, while Sisters Morales filled in for Brave Combo on the Country Stage, and Grady Gaines' Texas Upsetters warmed up for Hooker on the Festival Stage.
Meanwhile, flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia played to another overflowing and enthusiastic audience on the colorfully decorated New Spain/New World stage beginning at 7:30 p.m.
But back to the critic's dilemma. I started with Hooker, who was introduced as "the only man who can look through muddy waters (or Muddy Waters) and spot dry land."
In a pre-concert interview, Hooker said he's making more money now than at any time in his 40-year career. His 1989 album The Healer won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Blues Album, and his 1991 sequel, Mr. Lucky, probably should have.
Both albums placed Hooker in the company of younger blues and rock hot-shot guitarists who've been influenced by his endless boogie.
"I don't think I could go any further," Hooker said. "I've crossed all the paths I wanted to cross and reached all the goals I set for myself. Now it's time to sit back and live until the good Lord calls me."
Backed by his Coast to Coast Blues Band, Hooker displayed his inimitable Delta blues guitar and vocal style on his classic Serves You Right to Suffer. He was just starting to get all the way down when duty called on the Latin Stage.
I arrived to find Los Lobos midway through an acoustic-oriented set that combined solidly crafted originals with traditional Mexican folk songs. There were none of the horrendous sound problems that ruined the band's appearance at the festival last year.
The crowd, which integrated a party-happy mix of Hispanics and white rock fans, listened respectfully to the band's quieter originals, including one atmospheric blues vamp from the new album. But they reserved their greatest enthusiasm for a bouncy norteno number featuring David Hidalgo on accordion and a folklorico arrangement of Guantanamera that turned into a mass sing-along.
To no one's surprise, the encore was La Bamba, Richie Valens' Chicano-rock anthem revived by Los Lobos for the movie of the same name. The band plugged in the electric guitars and brought the night to a rocking climax.
As impressive as Los Lobos was, Saturday's highlight had to be Paco de Lucia's appearance on the New Spain/New World Stage. The set was delayed for half an hour while artist and crew waited impatiently for the sun to go down so that the elaborate stage lighting would not go to waste. Happily, the performance proved to be worth the wait for the audience seated on a platform over the Reflection Pool.
De Lucia opened alone, snapping the strings of his guitar percussively and displaying the dazzling speed that has made him flamenco's most respected contemporary master. Gradually, he was joined by his brother Pepe on vocals, a second guitarist, two percussionists and bassist Carles Benavent and flutist Jorge Vardo from Spain's Benavent-Amargos Group, which played the festival last week.
The result was a stunningly progressive flamenco-jazz fusion that recalled the early African influence on Spanish music and reclaimed it in the world-beat arena with references to Latin jazz and rock.
Unlike several of his fusion-jazz peers, de Lucia's playing is never about speed for its own sake. For all his virtuosity, his solos have a melodic and rhythmic focus deeply rooted in the flamenco tradition. Benavent and Vardo also seemed to rise to the occasion with more passionately controlled playing than they offered with their own group last week.
The concert ended with a male flamenco dancer tapping and stomping out ancient and increasingly rapid rhythms with his feet on an amplified board. When the music stopped, the crowd rose as one, clapping and shouting "Otra! Otra!" And New Spain seemed right at home in the New World.