Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
With the tragic passing of manager Joseph Dufault in May, it would have been easy to select Downing Street as the sympathetic choice for Best of. But between its whiskey wall, the world-class cigar room and a ventilation system that remains an architectural godsend, Downing Street doesn't need anything more to stand out as the finest cigar bar Houston can offer. Toss on a collar, grab a stogie, keep your voice low, and let the Skye Scotch and deep couches do the rest.
It's hard to imagine that we're less than three years removed from Robert Ellis's stint playing Whiskey Wednesdays at Mango's and then Fitzgerald's. From that small but loyal fan base — and even earlier in previous band Eyes Like Lions — Ellis has seen his star deservedly rise on the shoulders of his 2011 New West Records debut, Photographs. Along with his 2012 move to Wimberley and eventually Nashville, that year also saw Ellis nominated for an Americana Music Award for Best Emerging Artist alongside eventual winners Alabama Shakes. While all the praise being poured on Ellis is enough to make Houston proud, it's a damn shame you can't find Ellis at Fitz on a weekly basis anymore.
This past summer, the Blaffer Art Museum, nestled on the University of Houston campus, paid the hefty sum of $2.3 million for total reconstruction surgery, and the money was incredibly well spent. The facade evolved into a stunning windowed parallelogram, which both sticks out and enhances the lackluster brick buildings of UH. The interior space is now sprawling and bright, an open and airy dedication to the visual arts. Thin tubes of light cover the ceilings, making for a modern yet classy feel. On the second floor, a balcony overlooks the main gallery, which the museum is now dedicating to emerging artists. If you haven't been since the renovation, do yourself a favor and go.
Poets, novelists and essayists get rock-star receptions at Inprint's two popular reading series, the Margarett Root Brown Reading Series for adults and Cool Brains! for young readers. Authors scheduled for 2013-2014 season readings/onstage interviews and signing sessions include James McBride, George Saunders, Anne Carson and Khaled Hosseini. Past authors have ranged from internationally known Salman Rushdie to Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket. Local writers aren't overlooked, with Houston talent including the city's first poet laureate, Gwendolyn Zepeda, appearing at Inprint readings.
Dedicated in 2006, this ceramic tile mosaic celebrates the rich history of Houston's Fifth Ward by featuring the faces of some truly amazing people who came from the neighborhood — Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leland and George Foreman. In a city known for bulldozing the past to make room for strip malls or townhomes, murals like this one — which reflect upon and teach about the area's cultural heritage — are all the more valuable. It's a remarkable piece of art and a reminder of a remarkable legacy.
Any dancer will tell you that there's a special connection that forms during the run of a performance; the intimacy and trust are necessary for a dance ensemble to be successful. Now put a group of dancers in the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park and make them perform in the streaming fountain, and imagine the level of confidence they must have in each other. In "Natural Acts in Artificial Water," renowned choreographer Stephan Koplowitz and his initiative TaskForce created a masterful ensemble production based on the architecture, history, culture and ecology of the park, and the result was one of the most stunning collaborative dance performance pieces this year.
A roadhouse in River Oaks has been one of the local music scene's most confounding riddles. It's true; some critics have called Blanco's a clubhouse for Coca-Cola cowboys who only book their country-lite friends. And while actual bottle-throwing brawls may be rare — it's definitely an older, moneyed crowd, no question — the Lone Star is still cold, the hardwood floor is boot-polished to a high gloss, and the live music is a lot closer to Hank and Merle (or Willie and Waylon) than at any of Houston's larger suburban "dance halls." Enjoy it while you can, though. Blanco's is currently scheduled to close November 30, although there's an outside chance its landlords at St. John's School will allow it to stay open longer.
Scorpion Studios is the go-to place for serious tattoo artwork, and the man in charge, Dan Martin, is responsible for having built that reputation. As intimidating as the metal music blaring through the sound system may seem, the shop is full of a core group of welcoming tattooers with mad skills and an awesome vision. Both Martin's portfolio and his waiting list are mind-blowing; it can be months before he's ready to lay down some ink for you, but the wait is worth it for some real, adult artwork. There are no off-the-wall stock tattoos in this place; everything is custom, one-of-a-kind art, and they'll even cover up that terrible tattoo you had done at the shop down the road without laughing out loud at ya.
Dance fans had a real treat at the Houston Ballet's The Rite of Spring concert in March. The performance included the world premieres of HB Artistic Director Stanton Welch's Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) and Edwaard Liang's Murmuration, this year's winner for Best Ballet. The work, commissioned by Houston Ballet, was inspired by the flight patterns of starlings, with hundreds of birds moving through the sky as one. Performed on a bare stage, Murmuration included various combinations of swooping, swirling dancers, from duets to a stage full. One sequence near the end of the piece, a cycle of intricate repeated patterns, was perhaps the single most exciting moment of the dance season. Set to Ezio Bosso's Violin Concerto No. 1, "Esoconcerto," Murmuration thrilled audiences, earning enthusiastic, lengthy and well-deserved standing ovations after every performance.
A good band name should be both provocative and evocative, a word or phrase that rattles your nerves a little and sticks in your brain: Rolling Stones, Arcade Fire, the Dicks, Linus Pauling Quartet. Although sometimes the sounds they create hardly qualify them as a "band" — the Wiretaps frequently come across as more performance art or deconstructivist theater, like Negativland or the Residents — the duo does have the most awesome name in town, one that took on even more relevance after the NSA surveillance scandal in mid-June.
The blues is alive and well some distance from the Katy Freeway's Kirkwood exit, behind Olde Towne Kolaches and next door to a florist. Otherwise a grubby if literary-minded neighborhood bar, the Shakespeare has for many years now reflected not some long-outdated idea of the blues but what the music looks and sounds like today: older, white, suburban. It's had some help, but the Shakespeare has nurtured a community of local musicians — including but not limited to JohnMcVey, Sonny Boy Terry, Sparetime Murray, Mojofromopolis, Steve Krase & the In Crowd and the Mighty Orq — who have gone a long way toward keeping Houston's scene fertile when in most other cities the blues is but a distant memory.
D&W Lounge, off Milby at McKinney in the shadow of the Maximus Coffee Factory and surrounded by railroad tracks, has a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde vibe. By day (D&W opens at 7 a.m.), the unassuming shack's patio and dark interior are home to third-shifters just getting off work from the nearby factories and warehouses. By night, it's home to everything from University of Houston tailgaters to, recently, local bands and DJs including Umbrella Man. In the past couple of years, the bar's beer selection has improved remarkably — they now carry Houston faves Saint Arnold and Karbach. And don't let the outside fool you — the interior decor is reminiscent of another local business, Super Happy Fun Land.