Located on the campus of Rice University, Rice Gallery is off the beaten track of many gallerygoers. It shouldn't be. Under the directorship of Kim Davenport, Rice Gallery is "all installation art all the time," and it consistently brings in phenomenal shows from heavy hitters as well as newly emerging artists. Eve Sussman's high-definition video 89 Seconds at Alcazar used actors in period costume to create the moments before and after Goya's famous painting Las Meninas. It was one of the standouts of the 2004 Whitney Biennial, and Rice Gallery brought it to Houston. Meanwhile, thirtysomething artist Jacob Hashimoto's installation Superabundant Atmosphere filled the gallery with 9,000 tiny silk kites suspended from the ceiling. Hashimoto created an ethereal, cloudlike environment that swayed with visitors' movements. Rice Gallery's exhibition program is always varied, always fascinating.
Readers' choice: Menil Collection
Houston is no Harlem, New Orleans or Chicago, but we still have a robust jazz following, especially in the urban smooth jazz markets. You can find these suave sound followers downtown at the Red Cat Jazz Cafe, where jazz happens not just on weekends, but every day of the week. Even those who need to score a fix of traditional jazz trios, quartets and vocalists can find it here. Summertime brings national acts to the Red Cat every weekend for Summer Jazz Nights, showcasing the hottest guitar lickers and sax tooters in the country.
Sandra (not her real name) just kicked her two-timing renegade Romeo to the curb and is on the prowl for a "real" man who can satisfy her materially, emotionally and -- yes, she was getting to that -- physically. But this working woman can't get anything spicy cooking. So let's open up the lines, Wash. We have a few interested male listeners with something to say about this much-repeated complaint that there aren't any more good, single black men left in this dating jungle. With the skill of a radio ringmaster á la Jerry Springer and the soothing delivery of Billie Dee Williams, Wash works his lines deftly on the two-hour weekday radio show Confessions, managing with finesse the stimulating -- and occasionally slightly raw -- topics under discussion. But he also thoughtfully raises the field of battle to larger social issues, drawing on callers to dig a little deeper. What begins in the bedroom as a titillating he-said, she-said often evolves into a hearts-and-minds discussion on such topics as birth control, the role of fathers and economic justice. We love you, Wash. Keep on keepin' on.
Sure, weed jokes are old. Most of them stopped being funny not long after Cheech and Chong busted out of the hippie underground. But this one works, because it tells you a lot about the band you're gonna hear. That "Valley Boys" bit is the key -- it tells you you're in for some serious old-school country. And the Reefer and Resin parts oughta let you know that there's gonna be more than a whiff of the psychedelic to the proceedings. That's just what you get with these guys.
Readers' choice: Pasty White Boys
Nikki Texas, a.k.a. NTX, a.k.a. Tex Kerschen, was important to Houston's independent music scene. But he's gone and left us for the (less intense) sun and surf of Los Angeles, a move that makes perfect sense for him. After the demise of his early combo, the synth-fueled rock band Japanic, the former front man made waves in the art and music scenes with his harder-edged band Swarm of Angels, and the primarily synthesized material he created with his wife, Erica Thrasher, in the band Indian Jewelry. Pity he couldn't see fit to make it happen here. Good luck, Nikki.
While flashier and hipper bars have come and gone in downtown Houston, rock-steady Warren's Inn remains a bar for people who go to bars to drink, not to mingle or self-advertise. The decor is dark and wooden, with a mishmash of tables and a single turret-style elevated booth (the best place to sit). The joint's packed on weekend nights, the service is fast, and the drinks are pretty cheap. Warren's die-hard regulars mix well with the hoppers, and a genuinely friendly vibe fills the air. Bonus: Warren's has an excellent jukebox, with an eclectic mix of classic country, rock, zydeco, oldies and more. The bar's Market Square location puts it in spitting distance of several other watering holes, but it's Warren's classic pink neon sign that truly anchors the area.
Readers' choice: Absinthe Brasserie
No writer has yet encapsulated what this CD sounds like. Sure, it's easy to broadly label it a "surreal pop-rock masterpiece," but that doesn't do it justice, nor do the comparisons to acts like the Shins, the Flaming Lips and Todd Rundgren. The album stands up to all that praise, but it's that rare beast that sounds like everything else you've ever loved while sounding like nothing you've ever heard before. There's the melancholy of unplugged opener "Same Old Strings" and the anthemic numbers like "Looking Beyond" that make you stick your chest out and throw your shoulders back. The snarling "Four Letter Words" harks back to Haaga's metal days, while the three-song dream-float that weighs anchor at "Serious" and sails through "Supernaive" and "Anything Is Real" is as achingly beautiful as anything the late-'60s Beatles ever came up with. The CD helped Haaga and guitarist Kelly Doyle dominate this year's Music Awards, and we suggest you pick it up and find out why.
As with all of Cirque du Soleil's fabulous shows, the gorgeous Varekai combined dizzying acts of death-defying acrobatics and soulful music with a loosely constructed story about a lonely wanderer. Without any forlorn circus animals, the Canadian group manages to make us all feel like kids again. And the fantastically imagined world of Varekai, as directed by Dominic Champagne, became one of the most exciting shows offered anywhere in the city all year. The wanderer appeared in the shape of an Icarus-like being, who fell from the sky dressed in long, luscious wings. He landed in a landscape of clowns, acrobats and jugglers that made us giggle, gasp and sigh at the mystery of it all.
Go ahead, holier-than-thou hipsters, scoff at the choice of a corporate, commercial venue that you may view as an unholy alliance between a cell phone company and Clear Channel (um, that is, the now retro-christened Pace Concerts). But there's nowhere better in town to see a mid-level to major show, be it Basia, Nine Inch Nails or the Black Crowes (who opened their reunion tour there). It's got great sound and sight lines, and its seating accommodates both mosh pits and cocktail tables. In fact, there's not a bad seat in the house. Three or four bars ensure that there's not much of a wait for a drink -- though the prices are a bit steep -- and, most important to those who suffer from IBB syndrome (that's Itty Bitty Bladder), several bathrooms are so close, you won't miss a single guitar solo. And since the Verizon is the only game in town for acts too little for the Toyota Center/Woodlands pavilion and too big for the Meridian/Fitzgerald's, it hosts an awful lot of bands that otherwise wouldn't play Houston.
Kirk Markley's set for Craig Wright's Orange Flower Water was not beautiful -- it was devastating. The script told the tale of badly behaving married folks, most notable for their ordinariness. And Markley's set, with its looming backdrop of to-the-rafters metro shelving, captured the terrible banality of their suburban world. Stacked along the metal shelves were toilet paper, a pair of shoes, a teapot, towels -- the stuff of dull daily life. These details, wrought from the detritus of living a middle-class life, brought Wright's story of infidelity home. They made it real, almost too real for comfort. And at center stage stood a bed, sprawled like a battlefield, where the players fought. It became the central, unforgettable image of Wright's domestic war story.

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