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.
Housed in Houston's oldest commercial building (it used to be a freaking Pony Express station), La Carafe is a barroom-lover's bar. We're not talking a Bud Light-clock, gigantic-TV, supermodel-poster barroom, but a grown-up, no-bullshit place to sit down with a close group of friends and do some serious drinking. The candles that appear to give the bar its only light seem to have been burning for more than 100 years, perched as they are upon mountains of congealed wax. Nestled in the corner by the rustic, shutter-doored restrooms is a jukebox boasting Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline. The wine selection is great, the bartenders are among the best in Houston, and there's a big moose head mounted on the wall. And on days when the balcony is open, you can walk up the world's narrowest stairs, sit outside and take in Market Square. This is living history.
The music that gets played in clubs has to have been recorded somewhere. This high-energy downtown watering hole and dance spot simply chops out the middleman. Boasting a 32-track recording console, a state-of-the-art speaker system and a narrow but friendly dance floor, Clark's is unlike any other club, downtown or anywhere else, and it keeps the hip, well-dressed crowd coming back for more, night after night. An eclectic mix of both music and people helps to keep things appropriately unpredictable, whether you're in the market for slammin' beats or just good old-fashioned ogling -- um, "people-watching."
Shadowy, dark and brutally haunting, the Alley Theatre's mesmerizing production of The Exonerated was everything live theater should be. Deeply political and heartbreakingly moving, the stories told in Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's script -- about a group of wrongly accused death-row inmates -- were mesmerizing. But without the fine Alley cast directed by Rob Bundy with gorgeous and lyrical rage, these stories, about the terrible injustices hidden in the dark corners of our legal system, wouldn't have been nearly so provocative. The cast included K. Todd Freeman, David Rainey, Philip Lehl, Alex Allen Morris, Jeffrey Bean, Annalee Jefferies, James Belcher, Elizabeth Heflin, Alice Gatling and Todd Waite -- a group of Houston's finest actors. They came together to tell the true stories of victims of a flawed judicial system that has put people to death for crimes they did not commit.
Who is Mike Jones? Who cares? Devin the Dude's the rapper who matters most round these parts, a vintage-Cadillac-drivin', blunt-smokin', Bud-drinkin', bitch-runnin' fool who also happens to be a hilarious, stone-cold genius. Devin's the rare rapper who never boasts in his rhymes -- instead, he just lays out his life and those of the alter egos he inhabits, which run the gamut from the perpetually smashed Cooter Brown to the weed-fiending space alien Zeldar to the well-meaning but ignorant redneck in "R&B." A true hip-hop artist in a town brimming with aspiring corporate rappers, Devin is this city's John Coltrane, and they're nothing but a bunch of Kenny Gs.
When you walk in this joint, the last thing you expect is a killer jukebox. If you come in early, there's a few old codgers watching Jurassic Park or Seinfeld, and the hip-o-meter registers zilch. You expect to find the juke stocked with plenty of Journey, Stevie Ray and Steve Miller, with a little Buffett thrown in for that -- cue Hank Hill voice -- "fun in the sun" vibe. And the G.R.A.B.'s box has all that. But then what's this? Fifty-odd tunes by the Ramones sprawled across two CDs? A UGK full-length? A Violent Femmes retrospective? Classics of old-school hip-hop by Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Eric B & Rakim? And it's not all oldies, either -- there's also the latest from Gorillaz, Bloc Party and a mess of other fresh new hits. What gives? Well, there's a sign posted on the juke that says the owners will put your favorite CD on their box if you ask 'em nicely. And then there's the fact that DJs Ceeplus and the Dum Dum Crue have been making this place a regular haunt for a few months now, and one would suspect they have a hand in the juke. Anyway, it's a welcome surprise.
Readers' choice: Mezzanine Lounge
Every music scene should have a show like this weekly local hip-hop feast. Really, the rockers here need the equivalent: a show co-hosted by two guys -- club spinner DJ Chill and radio DJ/journalist/lore repository Matt Sonzala -- who know everybody and everything about the scene (note: Sonzala is an occasional Press contributor and the editor of this Best of Houston issue). They have a willingness to play records by anybody who brings 'em by, and the clout to score interviews with those who've broken big from the scene. The show is also on the Web, and it has interested listeners from all over the world. In the past year or so, Bun B has dropped in or called in regularly, Dizzee Rascal freestyled with the G.R.i.T. boys for a full half-hour live in the studio, scribes from The New York Times and London's Guardian have given the show ink, and Dennis Kucinich even dropped in for a campaign stop. Now, if only KPFT's higher-ups would give them back that extra hour they used to have.
The Houston offshoot of the fabled Austin Continental Club joins the ranks of The Godfather II and Superman II -- all are that rare breed, sequels that live up to the originals. Patrons hear local and national blues, country, soul and rockabilly acts at the funky bar, which offers old-school video games, kitschy neon signs and posters and, of course, Pabst, Schlitz and RC Cola in a can at the bar. Molly & the Ringwalds have turned Friday nights into a habit with their '80s covers, but regulars wonder if we'll ever see the return of Monday Night Bingo hosted by the El Orbits. If Kinky Friedman is elected governor, maybe the Texas Lottery Commission will have a change of heart.

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