Alley Theatre
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.
The Men's Club of Houston
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.
Exquisite melancholy is a difficult emotion to capture on disc -- most bands that strive for it end up sounding either whiny or pretentious. Scattered Pages is not most bands. The newest of their three EPs -- 2006's This Is Where the Story Ends -- picks up where Neil Young's Harvest left off: gently strummed acoustic guitars awash in pedal steel atop brushed-snare hits and vocals softly sung. These guys are starting to get lots of comparisons to fellow Smiths/Morrissey devotees the Decemberists, but we would argue that the locals are better, and not just 'cause they're locals. Singer Brandon Hancock's voice isn't as grating as that of Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, and the Scattered Pages' arrangements retain your interest longer. Who knew Baytown -- all three members hail from there -- could produce such sigh-inducing beauty?
This op-art gem is crisp, it's bright, it catches the eye, and the picture of the grinning, gold-toothed chimp set in yellow-and-orange swirls references the English translation of the band's name. (Yes, yes, we know, chango means monkey, and chimps are primates, but still...) The whole thing is as bold and garishly beautiful as a box of Tide. We don't know the name of the guy who designed the thing, but we wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be Andres Warhol.

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