2nd Annual Space City SpaceGrass Festival
Last Concert Café | Houston, TX | April 20-21, 2002
Photos by Larry Fox
Tapir Productions presented a sensational weekend of sun, fun and music at the Last Concert Café in Houston. Seven bands over two days gave fans plenty of bang for their buck as some of the top names in bluegrass and roots brought their magic to this funky, secluded oasis.
Sat | 04.20.02
The weekend began with the appropriately-named “4/20 Festival.” Picture-perfect weather greeted local Houston jamband Plump, who opened the show at 4:20 pm to a small but dedicated crowd of Café regulars. Plump delivered a fun, upbeat set featuring hot guitar and saxophone solos. The band is young and will only get better. They set a nice tone for the day’s events.
After a short break, Los Angeles-based funkmeisters Greyhounds took the stage. The trio of Andrew Trube (guitar and vocals), Anthony Farrell (keyboards) and Nick Pencis (drums) has a funky and melodic sound that is infectious. It’s hard to sit still when Greyhounds are performing. Their jams have depth and the grooves are irresistible.
Some notes here about Tapir Productions. Partners Alan Friedman and Gary Hartman, long-time music fans with a big heart, are on a mission to bring great music to Houston. Living by the motto “Music That Doesn’t Suck,” Tapir is building a strong local reputation for quality music and fan-friendly productions. Both Alan and Gary are fans first, and promoters second, which means they want people to have a good time and do whatever it takes to make it happen. They are friendly and approachable, working hard but never too busy to stop and chat or mix it up with the dancers in front of the stage. To top it off, their shows are taper-friendly, welcoming jamband fans with open arms. To attend a Tapir show is to hang out with friends and family — if you got to pick your family.
The Last Concert Cafe is a funky bar-restaurant-club set among warehouses and businesses. Upon entering the enclosed café, you can get a table for Tex-Mex food or continue through another door to the covered outdoor tables. From there, it is another few steps to the outdoor concert venue, located in a courtyard with a large covered stage facing a number of round picnic tables among the open space. There is plenty of room to sit or stand, hang with friends or dance right in front of the stage. Add a super-friendly staff, easy in-and-out privileges, good food and a decent beer selection and you have a comfortable place to spend an evening.
Now back to the show: The sun was setting when Vermont-based jamgrass band Smokin' Grass hit the stage. Smokin' Grass (whose name was not lost on 4/20 Festival fans) has been taking the newgrass/jamgrass scene by storm with their high-energy picking and strong harmonies. The five-member band (Adam Frehm—dobro; Doug Perkins—acoustic guitar; Mike Santosusso—electric bass; Beau Stapleton—mandolin; Caleb Bronz—drums) fuses traditional bluegrass with some jazz and funk elements, producing a joyous and highly danceable sound that can’t help but bring a smile to your face. Their mix of traditional and original tunes makes for an entertaining and fast-paced performance – time passed very quickly when they were on stage. Their set was very well-received by the growing crowd, which continued to build throughout the evening.
The Anticipation rose as the show’s headliner, Tony Furtado Band, made its way to the stage. Introducing himself as Tony “No Relation to Nellie” Furtado, he opened with a traditional folk tune (“Raleigh & Spencer”) that immediately displayed their non-traditional approach. It quickly became apparent that Tony brought the goods, and it only got better from there. His amalgam of folk, Celtic, blues and funk creates a unique American Roots sound that is more power than folk, more jam than grass. The outstanding band (Gawain Matthews—electric guitar; Patrice Blanchard—bass; Aaron Johnston—drums) is all business, with an intensity that perfectly matches Tony’s “bring it on” stage presence. Tony is there to PLAY, and he lets you know it from the start. Highlights from his set included terrific versions of “Waiting for Guiteau,” “Ballad of Stagger Lee,” “Cypress Grove Blues” and a new tune called “American Gypsy.” He encored with a beautiful, unplugged “Ain’t Got No Home” that drew the hushed crowd into the moment and left them wanting more. It’s complex music that demands your attention while your body can’t help but dance.
The show ended at 1:45 am, a full 9-1/2 hours of music. And the weekend was only half over – another full day of music to come!
Sun | 04.21.02
It was back to the salt mines on Sunday, with the show again slated to begin around 4:20. However, everyone was movin’ kind of slow, as tends to happen on Sundays, so the show got started a bit late. Nobody seemed to mind as the Waybacks opened the show. The San Francisco-based acoustic stringband has been around for quite some time, and has honed their particular newgrass style to a well-defined point. Tight jams, accelerated flatpicking and high-lonesome harmonies marked the Waybacks set. The five-man band (James Nash—lead guitar, mandolin; Chojo Jacques—fiddle, mandolin, guitar, Humanatone; Stevie Coyle—rhythm & fingerpicked guitar, slide; Joe Kyle Jr.—standup bass; Chuck Hamilton—drums) has become a popular act on the festival circuit and will be returning to the Last Concert Cafe (opening for the Two High String Band) on May 24th.
Peter Rowan & His Texas Trio were up next. Peter Rowan is a favorite at the Last Concert Café, where he has performed many times over the past few years. Looking crisp in white shirt, black suspenders and black pants, his patented sound energized the crowd as he began with “Dustbowl Children.” The acoustic Texas Trio (Billy Bright—mandolin; Bryn Bright—standup bass; Cindy Cashdollar—dobro) was tight as Rowan performed a relatively short but sweet set including a delicate “Jewel of Priceless Worth,” over-the-top “Free Mexican Airforce” and wry “Panama Red.”
The set break following Peter’s first set was filled by another short performance by The Waybacks. This time they played longer jams and seemed to connect with the audience better than before. The set break flew by as they took their time and didn’t rush it.
Peter Rowan’s Reggaebilly Band took the stage and immediately grabbed the crowd with its tight sound. He dug deeper into the songs and fused the bluegrass and reggae elements beautifully. Opening with a lovely “Natural Mystic,” he followed with a haunting “No Woman, No Cry” featuring a guest turn by Houston’s own Fluteman John (John Reader), adding an extra layer to the tapestry already being spun. The band (Billy Bright—guitar; Bryn Bright—electric bass; Cindy Cashdollar—dobro; Don Grant—keyboards; Jeff Hogan—percussion; Russ Ijinga—drums) continued to gel on an uptempo “Pullin’ the Devil By the Tail” and “Little Maggie.”
The next set break featured a surprise performance by local Houston blues guitarist Carolyn Wonderland. Her sweet-and-sassy attitude quickly brought fans back to the front of the stage as Wonderland performed a number of down-and-dirty blues tunes with a rockin’ approach. She connected with the crowd and was clearly having a blast. An original song called “Annie’s Scarlet Letter” quieted the crowd to a hush as the plaintive lyrics “Now I’m an ex-patriot in my home town, and I can’t even vote to change the laws that put me down…and I only pray that you fare better, I wear my marijuana leaf like a scarlet letter" imparted a timely message. Her smoky version of Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Runnin’” allowed her to growl with the best of them. By the time her short set was over, Wonderland had made a slew of new fans. (Carolyn Wonderland appears every Tuesday night at the Last Concert Cafe.)
It was getting pretty late on a Sunday night when the evening’s headliner, John Cowan Band, finally took its turn. The crowd was dragging a bit as Cowan picked up his bass and cranked up his unique blend of bluegrass, rock and pop. He was in strong voice as he opened with “My Heart Will Follow You” from his self-titled album of 2000. His band (Jeff Autry—guitar; Scott Vestal—banjo; Luke Bulla—mandolin, fiddle; Pasi Leppikangas—drums) was tight but seemed to be holding back a bit, reflecting the late hour and a crowd that was keeping its distance. The fans were clearly enjoying the set, but preferred to enjoy it from the comfort of their seats. This led to a set that included a higher proportion of mellower tunes than might be expected. However, he did kick out the jams with a loping and funky “Sittin’ on Top of the World” and high-groove “Two Quarts Low.” Possibly the highlight of the entire weekend was his aching rendition of Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon,” which was as plaintive and soulful as any performer could emote. The encore featured an instrumental duet by Jeff and Scott, followed by the entire band closing with a hot “Baton Rouge.”
It was after midnight as the spent but happy crowd found its way back to reality. Tapir Productions had pulled off quite a weekend of music, with plenty of highlights and memories to take away. The stellar band lineup, Chamber of Commerce weather, friendly crowd and loose venue made for a perfect weekend. I would like to give a big shout to all the new friends I met in Houston – you have a close community with a phenomenal spirit and should be proud of it. Keep the faith and support the music!
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Thanks to Larry Fox for the fine photos.