Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Several literary powerhouses call Houston home, Robert Boswell (Tumbledown) and Antonya Nelson (Funny Once) among them. The current graphic-novel/Internet king, Mat Johnson (Right State), is also here. The country's leading urban-fiction novelist, ReShonda Tate Billingsley (Rumor Central), and a slew of bestselling romance novelists, such as Kerrelyn Sparks (How to Seduce a Vampire Without Really Trying) and Sophie Jordan (The Ivy Chronicles), are all locals. With a nod to all that talent, it's Dean James, an unassuming librarian/bookseller who writes cozy mysteries and has legions of fans, who takes this year's Best Author award. James has written under several pseudonyms, including Honor Hartman, Jimmie Ruth Evans and Miranda James. It's Miranda James who released The Silence of the Library, the latest title in the "Cat in the Stacks" mystery series. The cozy whodunits feature a male librarian/amateur sleuth who has a big Maine Coon cat for a sidekick — no, the cat doesn't talk, but he does seem to think a lot. Fans (even the ones who don't realize Miranda is actually Dean) scoop up each new title as soon as it hits the shelves and immediately clamber for the next release. ("I'm writing as fast as I can!" James has assured us.)
It's been a more eventful year than usual for Dan Electro's, probably the lowest-profile place among Houston's major live-music venues. It started off sadly with February's death of Rozz Zamorano, the bass master who was one of the Sunset Heights club's stalwart musicians, and then went through another big change when Shakespeare Pub partners Kyle Soltis and Jason Sandman took over ownership from Bob Edwards back in May, leading to its new motto, "improving while grooving." The transition hasn't seemed to set Dan's musically off-course, though, and it has continued hosting some of the top unsung names in blues, roots music and rock (Ana Popovic, Pete Anderson and Chris Duarte) to go with the laundry list of locals (Ezra Charles, Eric Tessmer, John McVey, Vince Converse and Teri Greene), people who know the pristine-sounding stage underneath the fluorescent green stars is one of the best places to play in town, and the lushly landscaped patio one of the best places to, er, relax. For newcomers, the best way to sample Dan's laid-back but hard-rockin' vibe is probably the Thursday open jam, where both regulars and guests (including Billy Gibbons and Gregg Allman) have laid a hurtin' on happy audiences since December 1988.
When you're looking for a great downtown watering hole, you can't go wrong with Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge. Located on Main, it's nestled in a long space with cavernous ceilings and a balcony that offers a fantastic ringside seat to downtown Houston. But this isn't just a room (and a balcony) with a view — the folks behind the gleaming wooden bar at Bad News can mix up whatever you desire, along with some alcoholic beverages you never even knew you were secretly dreaming of. If your grounds are downtown, stomp no further.
It's not as beautiful as it once was. The paint is faded and worn away. But even in its neglected state, Leo Tanguma's The Rebirth of Our Nationality is an example of public art at its best. It stirs emotions. It's something to be proud of. It gives the public a sense of ownership. Tanguma, who studied with Texas State University's John Biggers and worked with Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, completed the block-long work in 1973. Populated with indigenous peoples from various stages of history, the mural is topped with the sentence "To become aware of our history is to become aware of our singularity." Talk about restoring The Rebirth, considered a landmark example of Chicano art, surfaces from time to time. That may or may not happen. Even if it doesn't, The Rebirth continues to fulfill its mission — it inspires.
Try as we can to sing Houston's praises, the battle to change the outside world's perception of our city will probably have to be fought one person at a time. There are those out there who still assume we all ride horses to work, repress women and hate gay people because isn't that what Texas is all about? We know we're better than that, and while the Pride Parade may not be the silver bullet that proves we're cool to the rest of the world, it at least shows that not all of us are the enemies of progress. The Pride Parade is wild and uninhibited — two things that are incredibly Texan, by the way — and provides a safe space where everyone can come together and just celebrate. Oil, NASA and sports are all well and good, but it's time we start showing the rest of the world we're pretty damn progressive, too. And you can do that by taking your guests to the Pride Parade. At least they'll have a story to tell everyone back home.
The numbers give you an idea of the scope of FotoFest 2014. The citywide exhibit, with its focus on contemporary Arab video, photography and multimedia art, lasted more than six weeks, featured work by about 1,200 artists who came from 37 different U.S. states and 40 countries, and exhibited in 200 different galleries and spaces. Some 275,000 people from 43 countries experienced the festival, and another 123 million worldwide read reviews and watched news reports. Those are the official numbers. Impressive as they are, they don't convey the number of participating artists who considered exhibiting at FotoFest a milestone in their careers, a stepping stone to international recognition. Or the number of curators and collectors who reached a new level of understanding of contemporary Arab visual art. No other Houston visual arts event had the worldwide impact of FotoFest 2014.
Sometimes you just want to go where nobody has anything to prove, and that's when it's time to head to The Boom Boom Room. Most nights the Heights bar is quiet and calm, with a scattering of locals enjoying glasses of good wine. Formerly a cantina, the place was transformed in 2006, reopening as a dimly lit den with plush bar stools that offer plenty of places to sit and enjoy good drinks, eat grilled cheese and listen to the occasional band. The bartenders know their regulars and keep the drinks coming, and the whole joint is a relief to the senses. The Boom Boom Room is simply a place where people from the neighborhood can drink in peace.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston usually has a strict no-touch policy. But for "Soto: The Houston Penetrable," a kinetic installation by the late Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto, touching was not only encouraged, it was required. Made up of 24,000 plastic tubes that had been hand-painted and hung from the ceiling, the installation was not considered complete until viewers entered and moved through the tubes. "The Houston Penetrable" was commissioned by MFAH some ten years ago, and after Soto's death in 2005, work on the project continued under the supervision of Paolo Carrozzino and Walter Pellevoisin. Workers in France and Houston hand-painted the tubes and hand-tied the knots to construct the installation, while thousands of Houstonians spent five months wading through those tubes to help complete the artist's vision.
When you want to people-watch, you must go to where the people are, and everyone goes to RodeoHouston. You'll see folks from every background, of every age, of every type roaming the grounds. From real cowboys to fake cowboys, from music fans to people who just love deep-fried foods, from thrill seekers to people content to visit the petting zoo, you'll find them all inside the gates. When an event is so big that it has a little bit of everything, it brings in a crowd that's a little bit of everything. The end result is that no matter where you choose to watch — on the ground, in the stands or on a ride above the carnival — there will be someone doing something fascinating.
Every Thursday afternoon before 5, a line forms outside the doors of this Heights hall of the Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas. And the line grows. And grows. For bingo. If you don't get there before 7 p.m., chances are the place will have reached its 700-person maximum, and the doors will close in your sad face. That's how popular this event is. It's not fancy — just a huge room with rows of long tables and folding chairs — and that's the way we like it. Plus, pitchers are only $7, and the burgers and dogs will help you keep your energy up for the fast-paced daubin'. (Bingo pads are $5 each, doors open at 5:15 p.m.)
Finding a jukebox that's not one of those Internet abominations is hard enough these days, but finding one as carefully curated and downright hip as Under the Volcano's is simply impossible. Owner Pete Mitchell, a major music fan, keeps his West U joint's box stocked with classic barroom fare like Exile on Main Street or The Last Waltz, but he updates it constantly with cutting-edge acts like St. Vincent and the Black Lips. And if you're looking for a place to punch up some local artists such as Little Joe Washington or the Kashmere Stage Band, look no further. Mitchell also smartly reserves a few spots for the artists who appear at the bar's Wednesday live-music nights.
Trends come and go, but every city has at least one music venue that makes its living by taking chances. Walters has filled that niche in Houston since the days it was known as Walter's On Washington, the post-Mary Jane's extension of owner Pam Robinson's "Pamland" domain. The assumption that Walters has more lives than a cat may well be true, but Walters is now thriving after relocating to its quarters near UH-Downtown. It's become the staging grounds for the annual Girls Rock Camp Houston, a regular stop on the circuit for indie princes like Titus Andronicus and Kurt Vile and, with shows by MDC, Negative Approach, local heavyweights Die Young and '80s pranksters the Dead Milkmen in the past year alone, Houston's No. 1 punk/hardcore destination bar none.