I may have been five-or-so minutes late for Doodle Bug The Clown's highly anticipated opening night set, but it was obvious that she'd already pulled off quite a magic trick -- by making the crowd disappear. Still, with all the lights, vendors, food, and games, Auditorium Shores looked like a small, bustling city: Tel Aviv. On a Saturday night, no less. And with the festival's cash cows still to come, the "Country and Tejano" nights, the first night, "Reggae/Rock," was pretty grim. Part of the problem was that none of the headliners, aside from the Killer Bees, had much to do with either "Rock" or "Reggae." The Ugly Americans? Funk. Polite Society? Soul covers. The Spinners? Once semi-funky, once amazingly soulful, and now, just old. As nostalgically fun as they may have been, it's sad to see that these Spinners are spinning pretty damn slowly these days. In fact, the only act here to combine a rock & roll stage presence with an inspirational reggae-ish message and moral was, yes, Doodle Bug The Clown. Doodle Bug, who looked a bit like a female Marilyn Manson, had the kids smiling, laughing, and waving their fingers in the air as magic wands. And what good is fun without a coinciding learning experience? One of Doodle Bug's better call-and-response set-ups, about a black cat trying on different colors, concludes with the cat opting to stay black, because as Doodle Bug says, "It's okay to be who you are." And although she nervously looked at her watch just before the grand feed-the-overgrown-caterpillar finale, Doodle Bug drove her message home loud and clear: "You all have something beautiful inside of you." So what if a small, opening night crowd probably made Aqua Fest organizers nervous, at least the kids were happy. Thanks to Doodle Bug, that is. With her around, for parent and child alike, there was something to learn from and laugh at. After all, isn't Aqua Fest just the midway point between a miniature circus and bloated carnival? And hey, who doesn't love a clown? -- Andy Langer
Perhaps if Jesus "El Matador" Chavez had come out after Stefani, the "All-American Sweetheart," instead of before, it might have been a much shorter bout. As it was, the beating lasted 100 minutes; yo, Aqua Fest, the days of 120-minute sets are dead, 90 max, 60 are better, nix 105. Anyway, it was brutal. Yeah, yeah, the magenta hot pants especially. "Porque Soy Mujer" was semi-rousing in a Madonna-as-Evita sort of way, but the cheesy keyboards ruined just about everything they came in contact with. "Manos Arriba," cried Stefani gayly. "Ritmo!" And while Aqua Fest's money crowd of Mexicans wasn't ritmo-ing (the purple smoke was whirling), Stefani started signing autographs. Mid-song. Nifty trick. First the koozie, then the T-shirt. She actually got off a good song while doing this, too. Spanish is such a beautiful language. The poetry is unbelievable. Unfortunately, this sort of Tejano music is the Spanish equivalent of a Karaoke bar. Which left a lot of whooping and yelping from Stefani to fill the next 80 minutes. Soon, everybody was tired -- the listless crowd, and the panting Stefani, whose thick-thighed leg kicks had gotten progressively lower. Then her enunciation went from novella-perfect to street slur. Conducting a dance contest for her band killed 10 minutes, and when it came her turn, she bounced up and down for 30 seconds and ran backstage for a breather. Meanwhile, on the little stage, Ruth was in better shape (in those same hot pants, only blue), but the music was still out cold. Not so of Stefani, who came to on that big ol' center stage for her "Billie Jean" moment, "Angel del Cielo," with metal guitar solo and everything. A salsa number followed, and the growing crowd started to get into it. One of those arriving late calls out for "Porque Soy Mujer," and who is Stefani to argue. "Funny thing is, I hear guys singing this," she says when she's done. And as some sort of ghoulish punishment, she makes a few of 'em get up on stage to have a dance contest with the ladies. Before she can be gonged, she humiliates the guys, and then it's over. Someone finally stops the fight. Quoth Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, "T'estan buscando, Matador!" Where were you, hombre? It was ugly. -- Raoul Hernandez
While some folks are moved by the vocal subtlety of Fauré's Requiem, others are healed by the sandpaper shine of James Hetfield's vox. Still others find a higher power in the type of Christian praise music featured in the middle of Austin's nine-day Aqua Fest. A festival brochure beckoned River City dwellers to "celebrate our diverse cultures" during that evening's concerts, and those who accepted the invitation weren't disappointed. While the talent's common denominator was the desire to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, the skill and manner in which the handful of groups chose to fulfill that mission differed as much as the many booths featured in the festival periphery. Central Texas' Hearts of Joy offered up a perky selection of homespun tunes; the Elgin Community Choir's regrettably short set soared as gracefully and powerfully as a golden eagle; San Antonio's Potter's Clay entertained and inspired the small but vocal crowd with a country-folk-Tejano version of the classic "I Saw The Light." The pleasant surprise of the evening, however, was the muscular melange of Malachi. This diverse 10-piece band knew well how to sing and play in the Spirit. The Austin-based group is also blessed with three gifted singers who could belt out a good Hallelujah while inspiring their talented bandmates and the crowd. The three voices sounded as lush as the backing Hammond B-3. Malachi needs to play more around town. It's one thing to preach to the mostly converted in attendance at Town Lake, but it's another to inspire everyone else with the Spirit. -- David Lynch
Sure, it's called Aqua Fest, but that doesn't mean a heavenly downpour is any more welcome than a Ted Nugent show in a residential neighborhood. So it was that I first drove around Auditorium Shores a number of times, straining to hear if Don Walser and the host of other "Country" Night acts were indeed playing (radio announcements assured they were, but my ears said otherwise). After a half-hour detour to Waterloo Records, the modest rain had completely subsided and I tried my luck again. Upon entry, I found myself in what looked like an abandoned carnival. A dozen or so stragglers huddled under a small tent as Dottsey & Two Way Street crooned out a sweetened version of a Creedence Clearwater Revival tune (another aqua reference!), but I was looking for the Big Names -- the Geezinslaws, John Berry. The former were nowhere to be seen; the story goes that the roof over their stage was collecting water and preparing to play the "toaster in the bathtub" game with whoever was unlucky enough to plug electric instruments underneath, though Sammy Allred found himself facing a flood of calls (yet another aqua reference!) the next morning accusing him of chickening out of the show without reason. Desperate vendors attempted to convince me that I needed to buy sunglasses to protect me from the dark, drizzly night, and the few carnival rides that were in operation boasted at best a single passenger or couple as they occasionally creaked into action. So what was there to do at this festival? Naught but enjoy the song stylings of one John Berry, the headliner who had been kind enough to actually show up. Only one problem: I thought this was "Country" Night. Claiming to be from Georgia, Berry presented a set of pure SoCal Seventies-style mellow rock, alternating between solo acoustic and full-band bombast. I've gotta admit that I'm not familiar with any of this guy's songs, but suffice it to say that the "crowd" of what looked like less than 100 people were. It was actually an ideally sized group; big enough that their cheers sounded arena-sized, but small enough that Berry could hear their individual comments: "Take off my shirt? Well if it had been her (pointing) who asked, it'd be gone in a flash. But you, sir, I wonder about." Berry clearly appreciated every single person who waited out the rain for his set. I've never heard such heartfelt "thank yous" coming through a P.A. And in all fairness, Berry's glossy, safe-as-milk tunes were perfect for a drizzly summer night. After all, there's something about that sort of atmosphere that sends your fingers toward the button for the oldies station preset as you head down a dark, rainy highway. Still, my tolerance for Doobie Brothers-type pop runs out quick, so I headed for the exit about 10 minutes before it ended. As I walked towards my car, sure enough, it came: Berry ended his set with a rendition of "Listen to the Music," pleasing the hats in the audience no end. Then came the real surprise -- a segue into Aerosmith's "Walk This Way"(!) using the lyrics from Lynyrd Skynyrd' "Three Steps" (!!), which threw the audience into a proper frenzy and allowed Berry to finish up by going back to "Listen to the Music" for a rousing sing-a-long finish. Damn! I wish that bands I like were this stage-savvy! -- Ken Lieck
Talk about your study in contrasts. First, it wasn't raining. The sky looked menacing, sure, but one flash storm per July is probably plenty. Underneath that sky were Li'l Brian & the Zydeco Travelers, six young black guys from Houston getting off on bustin' zydeco speed rhythms on rubboards, drums and timbales, and jumping accordions. "Doing the creole, creole, " chanted Li'l B. "Zydeco, from Houston, creole, creole. Zydeco, yeah." He squeezed in a few songs from his Rounder debut, then a plug for it, and its newest sibling, Z-Funk. "Creole, creole, zydeco, creole, yeah." Next, the guitarist got in a few good leads. "Creole, yeah," rapped the B-boy. "Austin, Texas, come on! Creole, creole, zydeco, yeah." "Don't Blame It on the Rain" sounded a little less romantic than it did that past couple of times I'd seen this crew, and the chorus of "sitting in my ya ya waiting for my la la" just wasn't happening for the spare crowd of 50 or so. Then came the intermission. Uh? Beavis? Are they supposed to have an intermission? Uh, huh, huh. I don't think so. Not unless it's one of those 100-year-old blues guys. Didn't think so. Not after 40 minutes. That left Laurie Marks on the big stage -- her and her own personal hell: a husband-and-wife drinking team, in lawn chairs, at the foot of the six-foot stage (all by themselves) bickering and heckling Marks, who, eyes clenched shut, was obviously having a Janis at Monterey episode. Huh, Huh. I took the brown acid. Freaked out. It was still better than this. Fifteen minutes later, Bri and the boyz wuz back for a second 40-minute set. "Creole, creole, zydeco," he started. And then came watershed. "Funky, zydeco." That's a new one. Funky. Too bad it didn't apply to the covers, "Brick House," "Beast of Burden," and "No Woman, No Cry." And the minute the lead musician stops playing his instrument, it's all over (see: Buddy Guy). Thankfully, Filé provided a break to Brian's dry spell. Six, stiff-looking middle-aged white guys from all parts Cajun country may not have been much to look at, but the dancers didn`t seem to mind. "Good seeing dancers," said keysman Ward Lormand. "This is dancing music, not listening music." Nevertheless, a fistful of Canray Fontenot tunes, a Balfa Brothers' song, some Boozoo Chavis -- plus several choice cuts from last year's La Vie Marron -- sounded just fine. Especially, en Français. Ah, que belle. Former Austinite D'Jalma Garnier was in fine form, too, his fiddle playing chasing the triangle playfully in and out of waltzes. "Bonsoir Moreau," "Sugar Bee," and "Scratch My Back" all sounded marvelous. And each time they'd pause during their nearly two-hour set -- in front of 150 or so -- you could hear Storyville roaring on the next stage, in front of a crowd of hundreds. Lord. Bring back the rain.... -- Raoul Hernandez
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