Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
"Performance space" feels a little highfalutin to describe the Mink's Backroom — it's a venue, plain and simple — except for a couple of points. First of all, there's no stage per se; bands just set up at one end of the rectangular upstairs room. Second, no other place in town programs such an even mixture of DJs and live performers, and the Backroom just happens to be an excellent listening room that can double as a great dance floor. Either way, its warm wood floors both cushion and burnish the sound, giving the impression of a much bigger room; service at the fully-stocked upstairs bar is friendly and efficient; and there are plenty of comfortable chairs in the back if you need to take a load off for a while. Add an adventurous mix of local and national indie-rock, experimental music and underground hip-hop, and maybe it does merit such lofty categorization. Just be warned: At shows like last winter's "Hootenanny" all-covers extravaganza, this "performance space" can get crowded. Extremely.
Curious who might be on the Warped Tour next year? Chances are they'll play this nearly 4,000-square-foot, all-ages room way up in Spring first — or that they already have. Since JavaJazz relocated from Old Town Spring to its much more spacious FM 1960 quarters in 2006, several of the fastest-rising names in emo and punk-pop — Paramore, Plain White T's, Say Anything, From First to Last — have stopped by. Credit owner and booking agent Michael Kelley's perceptive ears for keeping JavaJazz just ahead of the ever-changing musical curve, and his partner Linda Sporkin for fostering an environment that's half after-school clubhouse, half CBGBs (and thus a frequent stop on the fire marshal's rounds). But mostly credit JavaJazz's clientele, whose ravenous appetite for music keeps them coming back again and again and again. Just remember, no booze; but rest assured there'll be plenty of water on hand since a mosh pit is almost sure to erupt.
With works including everything from square-dance dresses to Pilgrim mannequins to shadow puppets committing antebellum sodomy, "The Old Weird America" presented a weirdly insightful take on America. CAMH senior curator Toby Kamps honed in on bizarre strains of American folk culture in contemporary art and came up with a provocative collection of works that made viewers take a long, hard look at their cultural assumptions. Among the highlights was Cynthia Norton's Dancing Squared (2004), a sculpture that uses hidden motors to turn bouffant square-dance dresses into hypnotic hillbilly whirling dervishes. Meanwhile, Sam Durant salvaged hokey museum wax figures to present a revisionist history of the first Thanksgiving, an event that was more about genocide than intercultural potluck suppers. Even more unsettling, Kara Walker presented a video using vintage music and master-and-slave shadow puppets to create a disturbing and darkly satiric vision of the dark and disturbing Old South. Perhaps as an antidote to the imagery of Walker's work, Greta Pratt found and photographed contemporary Lincoln impersonators who come across as history-geek versions of a superhero.
There are no better artistic agents provocateurs than Jim and Ann Harithas and the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. The Station is privately funded and directed by the Harithases, which allows them to essentially do whatever the hell they want. A former director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston as well as the Corcoran Museum of Art, Jim Harithas has the brains and the art savvy as well as the social and political convictions to make the most of the situation. In past shows, the Station has presented highly charged contemporary art from Palestine as well as an exhibition of work addressing the missing and murdered women of Juárez. The Station's achievements over the past year include the American debut of the Russian art collective AES+F's dramatically apocalyptic video Last Riot and the FotoFest exhibition "Apertura/Colombia," a showing of politically fearless and often poignant Colombian contemporary art that blew away everything else in the photography biennial.
Houston's self-proclaimed "Misfit of R&B" is equal parts sex, soul and hilarity. You(genious) is known on the local music scene for his ability to lay down sultry vocals while busting plenty of moves with his well-dressed, more-to-love torso. For him, every show is a chance to woo unsuspecting female audience members with tunes like "3 Minute Romance," "Is Your Mind Right?" and "Sex on a Spoon" — a fan favorite that includes the line "Make you howl at the moon — Woo!" You(genious) always manages to captivate a crowd of hipsters, and we're guessing he'd do just as well in front of a group of drunken Betties donning veils and various penis paraphernalia.
Poor little Aurora. In Dominic Walsh Dance Theater's version of Sleeping Beauty, she was a rebellious teen suffering from narcolepsy, drug abuse and, well, general sluttiness. Walsh turned the fairy tale on its head and created a splendid fast-footed, semi-comical, quasi-tragic tail of love, lust, teen angst and fantasy. The princess was a pain and the prince a geek, but it all worked out in the end. Walsh gave himself a star turn as Dr. Lyle Lac, who saved the day, sort of, with flying leaps and sci-fi-lit mime scenes. The company dazzled, the choreography sizzled, and the overall concept was fun and thought-provoking. For fans of DWDT, this was a pure gem of genius.
The group had such a great name that some band from Oregon threatened to sue the pants off these youngsters for using it. Well, the Oregon band apparently did have the name first, unbeknownst to Houston's The Dimes, now called Young Mammals. The indie group collected 2007's Best New Band and a slew of other Houston Press awards last year and seem poised for greatness. Now, with a new kick-ass name, Young Mammals are playing shows around town. Go see them play now, before they have to change their name again.
UGK, short for Underground Kingz, were at the pinnacle of their craft, the highest point of their career. They had made songs with the biggest of rap stars and gained an international following unparalleled by other Houston MCs. But it all came crashing down in December when Pimp C suddenly died. The 2007 double CD Underground Kingz received raves and will serve as their opus, no matter if it was meant to or not. Five years from now, there'll be no reunion album. There will be no "Steel Wheels" tour down the road. There will only be the quality music the duo released over the years.
Poison Girl (PG if you're texting) gets a nod from us for its diverse clientele, entertaining decor and alcohol-heavy drinks. You're as likely to see a local musician enjoying a cheap drink on the patio with a one-legged Cabbage Patch Kid as you are a lawyer playing vintage pinball and drinking high-quality whiskey. (Did somebody say "Scavenger Hunt?") But the pours aren't the only thing generous about this place — we give the owners added props for stirring cool with consciousness. Every first Sunday, a portion of sales is donated to a local nonprofit organization, and every last Thursday, they lend the patio to local writers for the Poison Pen Reading Series. If Rudyard's is Montrose's living room, then Poison Girl is its equally-as-cool basement bar.
On the outskirts of Midtown is a time warp to a Vietnam-era dive bar. Okay, so it's actually the Lone Star Saloon, but anyone who has moseyed (purposely or accidentally) into this shotgun-style drunken haven might believe the aforementioned scenario. The clientele ranges from talkative veterans to homeless crazies to two-steppin' transvestites. The bartenders — who prefer that you pay in cash — will be happy to help you as soon as they kick out the drunken mental cases. Ladies will want to make sure they're on or near the arm of a familiar lad, as they may fall prey to one of the countless, ahem, charming regulars who "just want a kiss." But all these obstacles make for great people watching, set to the soundtrack of a kick-ass jukebox featuring selections that do little to kill the blasted-back-to-the-past atmosphere.
We have no idea who a certain local character we'll charitably refer to as "T.B." may be, and that puts us in the definite minority among those who use Rudyard's downstairs men's room — or at least write on its walls. There we learned T.B. (allegedly) "licks ass (...and does your laundry)," "has Brad's whiskey dick," "is a blood donor" and "makes awesome pasta sauce." Also, he apparently "finger-banged A.D. Player's lady," "is the fucking champion of Texas" and "it was the sight of T.B.'s naked body that drove Brian Wilson insane." The paper-towel dispenser is helpfully labeled "Free T.B. T-shirts — pull." There's other graffiti in the bathroom, some of it hilarious — "Yao Ming's Glory Hole," "Shut up Santa" — but it's studying the continuing saga of T.B. ("...eats pussy with a spoon and a napkin") that makes us spend a little more time in there than we really should. Yeah, that's what it is.
Jon King has mastered the most important skill in bartending — attitude. He's not all smiles or cheery salutations; rather, he possesses that charming, old-man sass (even though he's barely 40) that's no doubt born of years of serving drunks. You want to earn King's respect, but first you'll have to prove you're not just another Saturday-night Sam or Sally. King is like a suspicious crush waiting to see if you'll return. During your first couple of trips, you'll likely be greeted with little more than a "What can I get ya?" But once he sees you around more, count on being rewarded with plenty of laughs via his clever quips and biting comebacks. King is exactly the kind of bartender you want heading up your neighborhood hangout — a solid dude who's handy with a tap, nozzle or shaker.