Commercial messages 

I have seen the future of downtown Orlando nightlife, and it has a trademark notice stamped all over it. After 10 days in which the Orlando International Fringe Festival momentarily advanced the illusion of the area as a hotbed of the independent performing arts, last weekend's choices made it clear that corporate interests will continue to hold an ironclad sway over our struggling hometown culture.

How much is that kitty in the window

The first signs were seen Friday night at Rat Pack's on the Avenue, where Felix & the BuzzCatz celebrated the release of their full-length CD, "Meowzaaa!" Once the promising but ragtag Swing Town 8, the band marked the latest leap in its maturation by demonstrating a newly polished sound and style, performing in front of a crowd of zoot-suiters whose sheer numbers appeared to belie the downward trend of the swing movement.

It would be nice to think that the draw was purely down to the band's evolution into a well-rehearsed, professional unit, but I had my doubts that the event's heavy promotion had been motivated by anything as innocent as artistic achievement.

The Catz, it seems, had hooked up with some heavy-hitting industry power players. Frontman Ricky Sylvia spent as much time thanking the Sam Goody chain for its support of the CD from the stage as he did citing the influence of Louis Prima on the band's musical approach. As he spoke, a costumed Felix the Cat character -- complete with fedora -- wandered through the crowd. This was no mere lark: The key element in the 8's transformation into the Catz had been its business alliance with Don Oriolo, the cartoonist now drawing the character and the guardian of its promotional applications.

Anyone who bought a CD at Rat Pack's could see for himself that the connection ran deep. There on the back cover lay the notation "Felix the Cat and Felix & the BuzzCatz are registered trademarks of Felix the Cat Productions, Inc." -- right where the instrumental credits might have rested, had there been space left over.

Don't get me wrong: I love cartoons, and I've never harbored any delusion that the music industry is anything more or less than a commercial enterprise. But the notion of outright ownership somehow made it difficult to appreciate the show on its purely musical merits.

Standing at the back of the room was Swingerhead's Michael Andrew, back in town for a new spate of gigs and presiding over the festivities like the patron saint of lounge (which of course he is). Friendly and accessible as ever, Andrew nonetheless confided that he was feeling anxious about his loss of contact with the producers of the upcoming Broadway musical, "Swing." After a number of audition callbacks and encouraging comments, he said, he hadn't received the phone follow-ups he had been promised. He was clearly concerned that the coveted role of the show's bandleader might pass him by. I told him not to worry, as casting directors were notorious for the slowness of their decision-making. I reserved my own concern for the suspicion that the musical's one-word title might signify the involvement of Andrew Lloyd Webber on any level.

Dub for sale

The aura of big business was even more overt the following night on Church Street. The Fringe Festival's beer tent and Outdoor Stage were long gone, leaving the market once again defined by the restaurant chains that are its meat and potatoes. Amid the neon glitz, the facility's outgoing owners had erected a "Clearance Sale" booth to liquidate their remaining inventory of logo-embossed photo frames, sweaters and other knick-knacks. "The British are coming," the display seemed to shout. "Buy American while you still can!"

The avenue outside Church Street Station had been blocked off for the Island Fest Street Party, the latest of the outdoor fetes the complex occasionally stages to spice up its regular menu of tourist-friendly saloon shows. "Sprint PCS Presents Island Fest," the banners proudly proclaimed. I guess we all gotta reach out and touch someone sometimes, mon.

Over at Kemura's Japanese Restaurant, the owners were getting into the Caribbean mood, playing nothing but reggae hits over the indoor sound system as customers picked at sushi platters with their chopsticks. As Bob Marley's greatest hits filled the room, I wondered if the predominantly Asian staff was scratching its collective head in confusion. What was all this about shooting a sheriff? And why spare the deputy?

Though the previous weekend's blistering heat had been supplanted by a decidedly non-tropical cold snap, the turnout for Island Fest was both mighty and diverse. Black and brown faces were in far greater evidence than they usually are on the Parramore-shunning east side of I-4, living up to the music's reputation for planting the seeds of brotherhood in the most unlikely of places.

Partiers of all ages and colors high-stepped to the live music emanating from the second-floor balconies, and even the more clued-in, dreadlocked heads in the crowd could be seen bobbing up and down despite the program's frequent detours into mainstream skanking. Both the three-man Caribbean Explosion and the six-member Deja bent over backward to appeal to reggae novices, the latter starting one set with a lazily balmy cover of George Michael's "Faith."

It was then that I realized how sparse the Orlando market for island sounds must be. I couldn't tell Peter Tosh from D.T. Tosh if I had a gun to my head, but even I know that requesting "Buffalo Soldier" is the same as announcing "I am a college freshman who just scored his first bag of weed. Please play something I recognize."

One love, one owner

Surveying the scene, my companion recalled the clubgoing days of her youth, in which Marley riddims had never failed to get a multiracial audience up and moving as one. I looked up at the balconies one more time. Hanging from them were flags -- but not of the red, gold and green varieties. The pennant below the Caribbean Explosion setup advertised the band's sponsorship by Baccardi Limón, while Deja's broadcast its affiliation with Carib Lager.

I know something else that brings people together, I thought. And I think I've seen more than enough of it for one weekend.


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