San Francisco and Houston couldn't be more different: One's blessed with bounteous beauty, the other's a swamp; one's compact and constrained by natural boundaries, the other's gargantuan and growing; one has elegance and style, the other's in Texas. But the cities do share an affinity for art cars -- those dolled-up, mobile works of gas-guzzling sculpture. The City by the Bay and the City by the Bayou are arguably the co-capitals of the art-car movement, and our own annual paean, Art Car Weekend, begins with tonight's Art Car Ball from 7 to 11 at the Allright Parking Garage, 1301 Main. Highlights: music by New Orleans's Rebirth Brass Band, an art-car-costume fashion show and chow by the Tag Team Cookers (admission: $40 in advance; $45 at the door; free for kids under 12). On Friday, there's the Main Street Drag and Eyeopeners Road Rally (Drag: 10 a.m. at the Children's Museum, 1500 Binz; Rally: 1 p.m. at Market Square, Preston and Travis) and the Art Car Symposium (6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross; $5). Saturday's tenth-anniversary Art Car Parade gets under way at 1 p.m. at I-45 and Allen Parkway, ending at the intersection of Memorial Drive and Sabine (see the related story on page 16). Info: 926-CARS.
Modern-dance maven Twyla Tharp and company face stiff competition from the Art Car Ball, but their program's strong. Titled Tharp!, it includes its own automotive homage: the Route 66 "travelogue" 66, set to "bachelor pad" music by Dean Martin, Esquivel, etc. Also scheduled: the symphonic ballet Heroes, Philip Glass's "musical response" to the David Bowie/Brian Eno album; and Sweet Fields, which draws on American hymns of the 18th and 19th centuries. 8 p.m. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 227-3974. $12 to $40 (Houston Ticket Center: 227-ARTS; Ticketmaster: 629-3700).
Divine diva Renee Fleming sings her first Arabella in the Houston Grand Opera's production of the Richard Strauss farce, which the composer considered "the second Der Rosenkavalier without the mistakes." Set in 1860s Vienna, it centers on the daughter of an aristocratic clan in decline, who's torn between her family's hope that she'll marry into wealth and her own desire to wed for love. The Houston Symphony, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, provides accompaniment. Opening shows are at 7:30 tonight, 2 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; the run continues through May 3. The Brown Theater at Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 237-1439. $20 to $175 (Houston Ticket Center: 227-ARTS; Ticketmaster: 629-3700).
We've already determined that Houston's no San Francisco; it's no Caribbean isle, either, but it's sure gonna sound like it for the next week-plus. The Houston International Festival might be called Six Banners Over the Bayou; kicking off with opening-weekend "Trinidad & Tobago Day" and "Aruba Day" celebrations, the fest features a sextet of "entertainment zones" -- Caribbean, African, Latin, American, Texas and Kids -- and more big-name entertainment than you can shake a dreadlock at. This weekend's concert highlights include shows by Los Palominos and Rikki Jai (see page 87), Senegal's Baaba Maal, Cuba's Los Munequitos de Matanzas, C.J. Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band and KoKo Taylor and her Blues Machine. Also planned: the American World Music Awards, international foods and crafts, and thematic fun at the Pirates Cove and the Caribbean Village. Today, Saturday and April 25 and 26 at various downtown sites; free lunchtime concerts are scheduled Monday through April 24. Info: (800) 541-2099, 654-8808; www.hif.org. Weekend admission: $6; free for kids under ten.
Held in conjunction with the Art Car shenanigans, the Brainwash Movies Festival is a mind-boggling array of works such as Running Around Like a Chicken with Its Head Cut Off (directed by Les Blank), St. Stupid's Day (featuring Ken Kesey), Kung Pao Meow and Karma Wash. Festival highlights: the "worm-crushing movie" Smush and You'd Better Watch Out: Portland Santacon '96; the latter's a true, sordid story about a group of Bay Area "Santachrists" who hit the Oregon trail and tangle with Portland's finest -- to quote the PR, Santacon's "a classic tale of the men in red versus the men in blue." 8 p.m. TemplO, 5217 Feagan, 802-1828. More info: www.laughingsquid.com/brainwash.
Ray Bradbury's the greatest living writer of lyric sci-fi. The author of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes signs copies of his new one, Driving Blind. 1 p.m. Borders Books, Music & Cafe, 12788 Fountain Lake Circle, Stafford, (281) 240-6666.
The Lone Star Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society hosts the largest MS 150 in the country; the two-day bike ride begins here at 7 this morning and ends in Austin on Sunday, with an overnight stop in La Grange. Starting line: Tully Stadium, I-10 and Dairy Ashford; finish line: the Travis County Exposition Center, 7311 Decker Lane. Info: 526-8967, extension 241; www.ms150.org.
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs are at the leading edge of the Rock en Espanol "revolucion," which mates pop and Latino rhythms with funk and punk. Touring behind Fabulosos Calavera ("Fabulous Skull"), a '98 Grammy winner, the Cadillacs share a bill with the high-sleaze loungers in the Cherry Poppin' Daddies (see page 87). Los Skarnales open. 6:30 p.m. (doors). The International Ballroom, 14035 South Main, 728-9175. $16.50 (Ticketmaster: 629-3700).
Fresh out of law school, Fred David Gray landed the plum gig of representing Rosa Parks in her mid-'50s case against the city of Montgomery, Alabama, following the African-American woman's refusal to give up her bus seat for a white passenger. Gray later represented Martin Luther King Jr. The senior partner at the Alabama firm of Gray, Langford, Sapp speaks about "Destroying Everything Segregated I Could Find." 7:30 p.m. The Hilton University, 4800 Calhoun, 741-2447. More info: 743-3087. Free.