Cactus opened its current location on South Shepherd in 1975, but its roots go even deeper: The store was a continuation of Daily's Record Ranch, which started in the '40s. In fact, Cactus's tradition of in-store performances dates back to that era; Hank Williams Sr. was broadcast on the radio performing from the location on 11th Street. In the '50s, the store had an in-house record label that was the home to George Jones, the Big Bopper and many Texas acts. Bishop notes that Cactus still attempts to "nurture and cultivate bands which are a part of the Texas music scene. We position grassroots artists next to offerings from the mainstream, trying to blur the boundaries between labels. Good music is good music." (D.S.)

Critic's Choice: Cactus Music and Video

Best Rock Venue
Fabulous Satellite Lounge
With its giant oblong bar and knee-high stage, the Fabulous Satellite Lounge has what a live venue needs: plenty of spots on the floor to view the band and easy access to the liquor. On busy nights, they open a small bar right by the entrance, making it that much easier to have a Shiner in your hands before you even scope the crowd or take note of the band.

But booze isn't the point, says co-owner and music programmer Susie Criner: "The Satellite is not a bar first with music thrown in as an afterthought. It is a music lover's room with a bar thrown in." That's why you won't find a pool table or darts.

Since the club's inception six years ago, Criner and the Satellite staff have specialized in unheard-of bands with potential. Criner notes with pride that groups like Wilco, Son Volt, Keb Mo and the Squirrel Nut Zippers played the club before they were able to pack crowds into larger venues. During the middle of the week, Satellite imports top bands from other markets, allowing Houstonians to sample those groups for a negligible cover. Brags Criner, "The bands we present for next to nothing are the bands people stand in line for on Friday or Saturday nights in other cities." (D.S.)

Critic's Choice: Fabulous Satellite Lounge

Best Blues/R&B Venue
The Big Easy
Tom McLendon's funky little joint, where the family feeling is as much in evidence as a cover charge is not, readily wins this category again this year. "People have a real personal attachment to this club," the owner notes over a shot and a beer. "It's not a bar; it's a church. This is where they come to testify."

Featuring the best in live, local blues five nights a week and zydeco on Sundays, this "House of Mixology" strives to make the blues accessible to a wide audience. McLendon, a blues aficionado, respectfully explains that his club is not the most "authentic" blues bastion in town; it's a "transition" club for those who wouldn't venture to unfamiliar streets to seek the music. "It's about educating people to the music while letting them have a great time," explains McLendon. "The blues is all about overcoming trouble. And the best way to do that is with joy."

McLendon opened the club four years ago. Despite its perch on the edge of upscale West U, the club's decor is a study in blue-collar modesty: sturdy wooden bar and tables, plenty of neon beer signs, posters of blues heroes and a dance floor that's about twice the size of the tiny stage. On nights without live blues, the jukebox serves as an aural textbook on the genre: Muddy Waters shares space with Albert King, the Neville Brothers and Paul Butterfield.

The Big Easy has also gained the respect of blues artists outside of Houston, many of whom lower their usual performance fees for a chance to perform at the place they've heard much about.

McLendon buys a shot for one of his parishioners. "I've remained true to my original vision of the club, which is to make it a tribute to the soul of the blues," McLendon says. "And to the musicians who showed me how to carry on. Misery and pain are inescapable, but if they could handle it with grace, then any of us can." (B.R.)

Critic's Choice: The Big Easy

Best Jazz Venue
Ovations
Until April, jazz was just one of many kinds of music played at Ovations. But now the club features the music six nights a week -- making it Houston's only full-time jazz club.

Apparently the club has found an audience and believes the best is yet to come: This summer, it's expanding its capacity from 120 to 160. A cafe bar will be added, seating another 30 people, and it'll serve food. Best of all, the house piano will be upgraded to a Steinway Concert Grand.

Artistically, Ovations will also be making a few changes. After renovations are completed, it will devote at least one night a week to Latin jazz; another will go to big bands. The club is also courting national acts: Tim Reynolds, the guitarist for the Dave Matthews Band, is scheduled for July, and Kirk Whalum will appear in August.

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