Folk music echoes through Fondren Library at annual homecoming concert

Legendary Houston band Wheatfield returns to Rice for memories and music

“I take great pleasure in telling my daughter I’m a historical relic,” singer Connie Mims told the crowd in the South Reading Room at Fondren Library before launching into a rendition of “Big Texas Sky” backed by her bandmates of 45 years.

Connie Mims (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Connie Mims (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

She was joking, but a rich musical history had brought her to this unlikely venue for a reunion with a crowd of deeply loyal fans.

The Houston folk group Wheatfield played regular gigs at Rice University in the 1970s, long before it performed on the first season of “Austin City Limits” and its band members scored the popular rock ballets “Caliban” and “Rasputin,” the former for the Houston Ballet. And while the band has changed members and names over the years, the core crew of Mims, Craig Calvert, Cris “Ezra” Idlet and Keith Grimwood reunited in 2004 and has performed together ever since.

In 2016, Wheatfield also became the first band to donate materials to the Houston Folk Music Archive housed in Fondren Library’s Woodson Research Center. So it was fitting for the Friends of Fondren Library to feature Wheatfield this year at its popular homecoming concert series.

At one end of the room stood a stage for the band and its array of instruments: banjo, dulcimer, mandolin, guitars, percussion elements and a sleek, electric stand-up bass that was all strings and fingerboard. A spread of red beans and rice, macaroni and cheese and cornbread greeted guests, who cracked open beers while settling into the library’s comfortable wingback chairs for a rousing, two-hour concert.

“We saw them a couple of months ago at the Mucky Duck, and we first saw them at the Kerrville Folk Festival as Trout Fishing in America,” said Lonnie Hoogeboom ’91, who was in attendance with wife Betsy Strauch ’83. “But this is the first time in a library for me.”

Wheatfield, also known as St. Elmo's Fire (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Wheatfield, also known as St. Elmo’s Fire (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Many alumni at the homecoming concert were old fans who were there when the group played Willy’s Pub and Hamman Hall in years past, while others were hearing Wheatfield for the first time that night.

“I read about the Houston Folk Music Archive and thought this is something I want to go do,” said Ricardo Gomez ’95, who was sitting with his friend and fellow alum James Fallaw ’90.

“I’m really into folk music back home (in Illinois) and I saw this on the list of things to do this weekend,” Fallaw said. “It sounded like something good to check out.”

Longtime fans of Wheatfield, like the band itself, had come a long way. Ken Milton and wife Linda had traveled all the way from Newcastle, England. The pair make an annual birthday pilgrimage to Houston to visit friends Ken made while stationed here in the 1970s in the British Merchant Navy. “We went to see ‘Rasputin’ when they were St. Elmo’s Fire,” he said. He quickly got hooked on the band and he’s followed them since, even from across the Atlantic, as part of a tight-knit community of Wheatfield enthusiasts.

Gael Cunningham, who grew up with Idlet, surprised Milton and his wife with tickets to see his favorite folk group during their trip. “It’s my birthday treat,” Milton said with a laugh.

“This is old home week for us,” Cunningham said. “There’s big history here.”

After all, she said, she was only 14 years old when Idlet became her first boyfriend.

The evening's set list (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

The evening’s set list (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

For Idlet, who plays guitar and banjo, Fondren Library holds more memories than just those housed at the Woodson Center. It’s also the place where he rendezvoused with another high school girlfriend — whose parents weren’t keen on their relationship — spending their nights sharing headphones and albums in the library’s listening booths.

Fond memories and the preservation efforts of Woodson Center archivists like Norie Guthrie, who established the Houston Folk Music Archive, are what drew Idlet and his bandmates back for the concert. The four quickly organized a short Texas tour to coincide with the concert, answering the library’s invitation with a resounding “hell, yes.”

“It’s so wonderful what Norie is doing,” Idlet said of the archive’s continuing efforts to  showcase artists and their materials. “The band that I play with normally, Trout Fishing in America, is being archived in Arkansas,” he said, but what the Houston Folk Music Archive offers in outreach and community interaction is unique. “This is just astounding.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.