Five years ago, Mildred's Umbrella started out in a cavernous, cold room, putting on original shows with virtually no set, no lights and no money. It's come a long way. The company is still putting on new work by resident playwright John Harvey, but MU has also added some terrific nationally known writers to its season. Marina Carr, Melissa James Gibson and Edna O'Brien were on the bill this past year, along with a fiercely avant-garde script by Harvey, featuring a woman who falls in love with a bull. And while the company still doesn't have a permanent home, the Little Troupe That Could has attracted actors and technicians who've worked at some of Houston's most well-endowed theaters. Best of all, the company, under the artistic direction of founding member Jennifer Decker, has kept its artistic integrity intact. The strange and sometimes head-scratchingly difficult work is never commercial and always intellectually challenging. MU has firmly established itself as an important part of what makes Houston's theater scene one of the richest in the country.
In this day and age of musicals that have little to do with artistic expression and everything to do with making buckets of dough, it's wonderfully refreshing to discover a song-filled night of theater that actually asks us to think. Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's Wicked, which ran last fall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, is that all too-rare musical that explores complex issues such as moral ambiguity even as it makes us laugh and cry at its delicious characters. Those characters include the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, whose motivations are explored as the imaginative plot slips elegantly across the witches' past, a history that includes their prep school days, where they learned all that magic.
Any theater that can land the regional premiere of The Pillowman for its season deserves a standing ovation; producing Martin McDonagh's much-lauded sensational drama about a writer of horror tales was a true feat. But the Alley Theatre and its artistic director, Gregory Boyd, did more than grab up one of the most recent and sought-after Broadway hits. It also managed to bring an inventive new production of The Miser to Houston, plus a return engagement of Culture Clash in AmeriCCa. And of course there was the more standard fare that included a terrific production of the Agatha Christie classic Witness for the Prosecution. We only hope next year's season is half as exciting.
Once upon a time, Downing Street Ltd. was the hangout for local politicos, trust-funders and single yuppie guys. The crowd has changed a bit -- there are more scenesters and social climbers these days. But most folks flock to this River Oaks lounge to simply enjoy the cigars, premium Scotch, weekly jazz and elegantly casual vibe. The 400-square-foot humidor is the spot's centerpiece, a marvelously crafted mahogany cigar shop. Step in and find your favorite stogie -- there's Zino Platinum, Arturo Puente and Greycliff for aficionados (many store their own cigars here), and Davidov and Macanudo for casual enthusiasts. Light up and kick back in a booth or on one of the plush leather couches. For the full, regal experience, nurse your smoke with a sip of 25-year-old single malt.
You might think all strip clubs are the same: Naked women shaking their asses to "pay for school"; cheesy 50-year-old men paying a girl their daughter's age to spend five minutes pretending they're interested in them; and some DJ named Rick playing a ten-year-old Limp Bizkit song for Sinammon's upside-down routine. But you'd be wrong. The discerning voyeur needs to keep in mind the kind of promotions each strip club offers. At The Men's Club, there's always something going on. Do you like chicken-fried steak? Check out Chicken-Fried Steak Tuesdays, when the club serves up a mean meal for $7.95. Same price for their steak-and-shrimp combo on Mondays. They also have barbecue specials and cool events in which daytime waitresses become dancers and a Texas Hold 'Em tournament can net you a trip to Vegas. So take your singles, your empty stomach and your prurient interests to The Men's Club, posthaste!
If you switch on the radio mid-song and hear Bun B's latest joint segue into a ferocious live attack from Irish punks Flogging Molly, you've probably tuned in to Rad Rich's Rock & Roll Revue on KPFT/90.1 FM. In a city that's far too often bound by the dictates of dozens of independent scenelets, Rich knows no such bounds, either on his radio show or at the concerts he puts together and hosts. He is equally at home in a hip-hop club or at a rockabilly bash, and it's a shame more people don't follow his example.
Taking listeners on a musical ride that has as many ups and downs as a voyage at sea, Sharks and Sailors combines heavy choruses with soft breakdowns. Featuring former members of Panic in Detroit, the group emerged from the Super Unison scene to deliver their sound to Houston. Reminiscent of groups such as Sunny Day Real Estate, Unwound, Drive Like Jehu and Dinosaur Jr. (and that's just from their first EP), the group is staking their sound in the post-hardcore scene and seems to have wasted no time in the "getting their feet wet" stage. Those who have seen at least a handful of their performances can testify to their promise as a mainstay in Houston and beyond. Look for their debut full-length (slated for release in early 2007), which will no doubt garner a few more awards in the year to come.
We've always held that there was a Houston Press Music Awards jinx. Over the years, most of the bands that win big either break up shortly thereafter, move to Austin (never to be heard from again) or even end up in prison, as was the case with South Park Mexican. But rarely has the jinx operated so swiftly as it did this past year. The band Michael Haaga picked to back his breathtaking epic of a CD, The Plus and Minus Show, was already well on its way to dissolving even as it was winning five of our awards, and Haaga had trouble even assembling the band members for our cover shoot. Within a month or two, the group was no more. Songs from The Plus and Minus Show haven't been heard here for more than a year now. The jinx wins again.

Best Band to Leave Houston in the Past Year

Hayes Carll

Steve Earle once wrote a song in which he called Townes Van Zandt "the last of the hardcore troubadours." But Earle hadn't yet heard Hayes Carll. While Carll isn't quite as hardcore as Van Zandt -- no epic vodka bouts or heroin binges, as far as we know -- he's very much the real deal as a troubadour. His life is his music, and his music is his life. And it always did seem that it would just be a matter of time before Carll -- a native of The Woodlands and a former resident of Bolivar and Galveston -- would head out to conquer the world. This year he inked a deal with Nashville major-label imprint Lost Highway and took the well-worn road to Austin, where he set up shop near Dripping Springs.
Venues fill to capacity practically every time this band plays a gig. You'd think, "These guys must really know how to rock." But you'd be wrong. Nay, sir. The Reverend, Uncle Tick, Rag Tag Mac, Coach and friends really know how to jug-band. Owning the stage while playing grassroots instruments as diverse as a fiddle, a saw guitar, a kazoo and a washtub bass, Rx Medicine Show fills the room with a wall of old-timey sound. But these fellas are no Soggy Bottom Boys. Unlike a quaint, nostalgic act like something out of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Medicine Show doles out rattling tunes such as "Cocaine Habit Blues," stuff that might not cure what ails ya, but that will intoxicate you so much you won't care for a spell.

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