Beyond the obvious, finding a common thread among this year's Best of Houston winners from the realm of music and nightlife pursuits takes a little study. But it can be done. With a few exceptions, our winners are both small businesses and local institutions that have now served multiple generations of Houstonians. Whatever their specific trade, their names have become synonymous with “Houston.” What you won't find are franchises or places where the focus is strictly on the bottom line. Leave that to the oil and gas biz, and see how well that's working out for them these days.
These places (and people, in a few instances) are helping keep Houston's soul intact no matter how much the city may change around them. So perhaps the best starting point would be KPFT (Best Radio Station). In a way, the Pacifica-owned station is a microcosm of the best aspects of the “Petro Metro” at large: doggedly independent, aggressively community-minded, and almost maddeningly eclectic. This month it proudly celebrated the 45th anniversary of being bombed off the air by the Ku Klux Klan — how's that for a milestone? — by breaking in a new 100,000-watt transmitter, but the “Mighty 90” is also perpetually struggling to make ends meet. An entirely listener-supported enterprise that shuns corporate underwriting (unlike their local public-radio peers), KPFT recently concluded its fall pledge campaign; donations were reportedly a little light, but it's never too late to pony up.
If there's any place in town that knows not to give up during lean times, it has to be Cactus Music (Best Record Store). The recent surge of interest in vinyl couldn't have come at a better time — just look at the boxes and boxes of used records lining the showroom these days — but at the same time Cactus is so much more than a record store now: live-music venue, art gallery, community center. So is Shepherd Plaza neighbor Rockin' Robin (Best Instrument/Equipment Store), which has been keeping local musicians in gear and gigs for more than 40 years, and keeping quite a few in rent and groceries to boot. Around the corner you’ll find McGonigel’s Mucky Duck (Best Intimate Place to See a Concert), which in 2015 celebrates 25 years of open stages, Irish sessions, and the finest singer-songwriters in the world.
Even Griff's (Best Sports Bar), is a funky little Montrose dive that has been around since the faded Astros pennants from the ’80 and ’86 playoff runs were crisp and new. Steady as she goes has also worked well enough for The Big Easy (Best Blues Club) and Cezanne (Best Jazz Club), Houston's blues and jazz perennials. Here, styles of music that have long fallen from popular favor enjoy warm receptions by appreciative and knowledgeable audiences. Small wonder jazz and blues, along with a healthy portion of indie-rock, are also essential to the sound of Moji (Best Band to Get Together In the Past Year).
This year Montrose leather mainstay Ripcord (Best Gay Bar), cheered as the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June. Whatever their preferences, Houstonians swear by their neighborhood bars and have for years, whether at Under the Volcano (Neighborhood Bar/The Village), Lola’s Depot (Neighborhood Bar/Montrose), Nouveau Antique Art Bar (Neighborhood Bar/Midtown), The West End (Neighborhood Bar/Galleria) or Jimmy's Ice House (Neighborhood Bar/Heights).
Across the street from Jimmy's sits Fitzgerald’s (Best Concert Venue), a place that has certainly weathered its share of change over the years. Truthfully, the club was chosen this year to recognize the achievements of the previous tenants, who have since left to focus on opening the in-progress White Oak Music Hall. But the packed house for the Trill OG himself, Bun B, at the “grand reopening” weekend earlier this month was an encouraging sign that the new team under GM Lauren Oakes can hold onto the title.
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Transitions can be tough, and Zack Palmer (Best New Club Owner) took on a lot when he inherited Walters Downtown from late mother Pamela Robinson, onetime empress of “Pamland” on Washington Avenue. It took an 11th-hour crowdfunding campaign for Palmer to hold onto the deed, but today Walters is thriving, even opening its own in-house record store last month. The Firehouse Saloon (Best Honky Tonk) hosts rising stars and proven winners from the Texas country and Americana worlds onstage and online through badlands.fm (Best Internet Radio Station), the streaming station steered by Firehouse owner Tom Imber. Alice's Tall Texan (Best Dive Bar) now has an Internet jukebox, but the beer is just as cold as it ever was.
Other winners are relatively new on the scene, but you'd almost never notice. Considering all the vintage gaming consoles and Magic the Gathering play at Neil's Bahr (Best Bar Games), it might as well be your old dorm room. The Nightingale Room (Best New Downtown Bar) now anchors the Lower Main bar strip and feels like it’s been here for years with strong, reasonably priced drinks; you-call-it requests from a sizable vinyl library; and (mostly local) free live music on Thursdays. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ladybird’s (Best New Bar) is so down-home even Mrs. LBJ herself might be persuaded to engage in a game of bean-bag toss. Meanwhile, Wonky Power Records (Best Record Label) works hard to release music by some of Houston’s most exciting young acts — who freely mingle rock, dance music, and traditional Latin sounds in all sorts of combinations — while its headquarters doubles as one of several exciting new live-music venues in the red-hot East End.
And none of this is to say that we're blind to concepts that work in other places, too. Barbarella (Best Dance Club) was imported from Austin and became a big success by spinning both contemporary music and theme nights that tickle the nostalgia bone, like the wildly popular Taking Back Tuesday emo nights. Fuego (Best Latin Club), brings a hint of Miami to the Almeda Mall area.
You might even say keeping pace with all our 2015 winners has been a real Race to the Moon (Best Band Name). If that seems pretty far out, just remember you live in place where the best jukebox in town is in a burger joint — and a damn good one too. That's Houston for you.