Catbirds
Catbirds doesn't have the town's best parking situation, especially on a busy night, but once you're inside and the vocals by greats such as Ella Fitzgerald and Nat "King" Cole kick in, you forget about the perilous journey you made to get there. The atmosphere is always laid-back, regardless of the head count, and the staff never seems too rushed or too frazzled. It's a great place for a round of beers, a nice martini, a mixed drink or all three. Grab a brew, some popcorn and an NTN console and find a seat out on the patio for a night of testing your wits against the cutie across the bar.
Witnes's skills on the ones and twos, plus his ability to keep a steady scene at The Proletariat's "Rockbox" every Thursday, are what make him worthy of Best DJ honors. (And his radio show, Late Nite Snax with The Grinch on KPFT/90.1 FM, brought Houston the latest in local, independent and vintage hip-hop until it was given the ax by the programming board earlier this year.) Witnes (a.k.a. Michael Zapata) first established his place on the Houston night scene as a regular DJ for events involving the urban art collective Aerosol Warfare, and he's always been willing to lend a hand to aspiring artists looking for a break. Along with resident DJs Stiletto and Dayta, "Rockbox" usually includes one or two newbies looking to test their skills, and an impressive selection of indie up-and-comers, proving that Wit, who chooses the performers, is keeping his ear to the streets.
Moody Gallery, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, is a well-respected fixture on the Houston art scene. Founder and director Betty Moody focuses on work that has what she feels is a personal vision; she doesn't care about courting art stars and avoids flash-in-the-pan trendiness. The gallery's focus on contemporary American art comes with a heavy emphasis on Texas, and although she has a solid selection of older artists (the gallery represents big names such as Terry Allen, the Lubbock-raised artist and singer-songwriter), she's open and encouraging to young ones. University of Houston MFA graduate Michael Bise and his quirky autobiographical pencil drawings are a recent addition to the gallery's stable of artists. The gallery's calendar of consistently strong shows is the product of Moody's thoughtful and personal approach toward art.
Italian-born Paola Morsiani brings a broad range of art to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. In the past year, she organized an exhibition of work by an international art star, an installation from a little-known Albanian artist and a group show of emerging Houston artists. She also co-curated a fascinating survey of works by Andrea Zittel, an artist whose pieces stray into design and architecture: compact and portable living spaces, all-purpose fashion and other products for better living. Morsiani's show of Adrian Paci's culturally derived video installations (read: professional mourners and disappearing icons) introduced the Albanian artist's work to Houston audiences in his first U.S. exhibition. Working locally, Morsiani put together the first museum show for four Houston artists making diverse work with a narrative bent, addressing everything from middle-class Iranians to chemical plants to darkest suburbia. Morsiani's attitude toward artists is egalitarian, with her primary focus being on interesting work.
Aurora Picture Show operates like an innovative art gallery and is based on the theory that each film -- and each artist -- is a piece of a bigger picture. Now in its ninth year, Aurora presents curated film shows during its 11-month season, occasionally peppering its lineup with treasure hunts, art contests, guest speakers and rowdy, homespun celebrations. Although Aurora's primary cinematic venue is the creatively transformed A-frame church in the Heights, the Aurora faithful have attended APS events in art venues throughout the city, including on-the-go with Aurora's Mobile Cinema-on-a-Scion and Floating Cinema, which was projected on a barge in the middle of Buffalo Bayou. While it's always nice to relive the nostalgia of Casablanca on the big screen, Aurora takes microcinema to the next level by keeping the old and making it new.
Alternative in just about every sense -- except maybe sexual preference -- this unashamedly divey hangout is peerlessly grungy and eclectic, with a great jukebox, pool, cheap drinks, handy parking at the bank next door and an entertaining weekly lineup of DJs and local bands. In the past year, the Prole attained added distinction by handling the overflow of shows by nationally touring indie acts after the untimely demise of Mary Jane's. Some of those shows almost assuredly pressed on the outer edges of fire-safety regulations, but hey -- we're not complaining. The show must go on, right?
Picking Houston's best museum wasn't easy: Lawndale Art Center is the herald of the local scene. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston thinks outside the box, bringing in Colombian artifacts and quilts from Alabama. Even the Orange Show has an underdog charm. But, in the end, we had to give it up for the Menil Collection. Yes, it's uncool to toast the leisure activity of two rich old white people, but Dominique and John de Menil brought to Houston works by true greats of the 20th century, including Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Man Ray, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol, as well as artifacts from ancient Africa, early Mediterranean civilizations and the Byzantine empire. The Menil Collection is the one most likely to house something from your art history textbook. It's more than a great local art institution -- it's a world-class museum.
Old punkers fondly recall The Axiom, the semi-decrepit club in the Warehouse District east of the George R. Brown Convention Center. Since 2001, though, the facility has been best known as the home of Infernal Bridegroom Productions. Even though IBP has added the luxury of working bathrooms, the club still maintains its raffish, low-rent charm. It's a remarkably flexible place, with a 99-seat theater that comfortably contains all that IBP's creative staff can imagine, plus a bar area with a smaller stage perfect for more intimate shows or live music. The outdoor deck offers the fresh air that used to come courtesy of the punk club's hole-ridden roof. The entire space is edgy enough to provide a frisson for slumming suburbanites and just renovated enough for old punkers tired of stepping over urine puddles. And, of course, it has IBP.
The Gay Men's Chorus of Houston (formerly the Montrose Singers) was founded in 1979, and over the past 25 years it has flourished and grown into one of the finest choirs -- and assemblages of talent -- in town. And through all of its political ups and downs, the chorus has been a constant source of pride for Houston's gay community. More than 100 performers are supported by a 40-member volunteer staff, plus accompanist Joe Tate and artistic/managing director James Knapp. The GMCH's three-program, five-concert 2006-2007 season, "Homeward Bound," will include "Home for the Holidays," "House of Hope" and "There's No Place Like Home." (And, yes, you can expect a few fabulous Judy Garland tunes in the latter one.)
The Menil Collection is admired not only for its outstanding assemblage of art but also for its impressive building; the Renzo Piano design inspires a sense of awe and serenity. Da Camera of Houston has helped the Menil make the most of that intimate setting with its series of live concerts. This year's lineup includes the Brentano String Quartet, the Juilliard String Quartet and the Enso String Quartet. Discussions with the artists precede each performance. The season also includes "Art, Music and the Politics of Race," a panel discussion with jazz pianist Jason Moran, Da Camera artistic director Sarah Rothenberg and various members of the Houston visual arts community.

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