Mango's

Like most music venues, Mango's isn't strictly new. Plenty of former Houston punks and hardcore kids have fond memories of the vegetarian restaurant's mid-'90s run as the Oven, and it's been a staple venue of the resurrected Westheimer Block Party for at least a couple of years. But when Free Press Houston editor/publisher Omar Afra and friends took over full-time earlier this year, Mango's shot to the top of the charts as the place to see both Houston's finest and occasional out-of-towners, like musical comedian Neil Hamburger and St. Louis's So Many Dynamos. Most weekend nights, and plenty of weekdays, Mango's is absolutely packed with young Houstonians checking out local favorites from B L A C K I E and Born Liars to Dead Roses and News on the March. It can get a little, well, oven-like in there when that happens, but the sweltering scene is just more evidence of Houston's almost unprecedented musical renaissance, a resurgence that couldn't have happened without venues like this.

Pianist Jade Simmons has just one mission in life — to give classical music a new reputation. She's out to replace the image of a stuffy, staid collection of dead guys in white wigs with fresh, young, cutting-edge artists (herself included). While she'll say she's had plenty of help in creating the Impulse! Artist Series, a weeklong event featuring concerts and workshops, the truth is, it's her baby. Simmons brings in pianists from around the world, presents each in a solo concert and organizes one group performance, with music ranging from works written 500 years ago to five days ago.

Main Street Theater

It might seem that life is just too busy to be polite anymore. But don't tell that to the folks at Main Street Theater, where Steve Garfinkel, along with the Emmy-nominated band Trout Fishing in America, has developed Ps and Qs: The ABCs of Manners. Shaped like a radio show along the lines of A Prairie Home Companion, the charming family musical follows what takes place one night both on and off the air of a radio broadcast while it tells us all about what happens to those of us who are perpetually late (just look at the poor "Late Great Nate MacTate"). And the Manners Police are always on hand to round up any soul naughty enough to take out her cell phone during the production. The musical features such silliness as a quiz called "Rude or Not Rude," and it even delivers a history of table manners, starting with cave times. And it reminds us that the most important rule of all is the golden one. Follow it and your manners will be impeccable.

Cedar Creek
Photo by Kevin Shalin

Rasquachismo is a Mexican term (of Nahuatl origin) that roughly translates to "creating the most from the least." With regards to our flat, relatively featureless natural environment, Houstonians are forced to adopt the principles of rasquachismo, and no place does it better than the Cedar Creek Bar & Grill. Sited on a grassy parcel of Heights-area land, one side of Cedar Creek spills out toward a steep-sided, glorified drainage ditch that slices through a succession of little mounds. While it's not quite like dining on the banks of the Seine — or even Austin's Waller Creek, from which the restaurant draws some of its inspiration — by Houston standards it's positively Edenic. If there's a better place to quaff a brew al fresco in this city, we've yet to see it.

Documentary photographer Ben Tecumseh DeSoto spent 25 years as a photojournalist for the Houston Chronicle. He shot tragedies, historic moments, everyday people and famous faces. These days, photography is still his medium, but his message has changed a bit. Now the award-winning artist is focused on not just capturing the world around him but changing it as well. His Understanding Poverty Project, a series of photographs of men and women caught in the cycle of homelessness and institutionalization, is meant to educate and sensitize the public to the difficult lives of Houston's less fortunate.

Slick Willie's Family Pool Hall

There aren't too many places competing for the Best Pool Hall in town, but among the few, none match up to Slick Willie's. Houston has about a dozen locations, but our favorite is no doubt the one in the heart of Montrose, where there are more than 20 big, solid and clean tables. If you're just an every-now-and-again player used to shooting on that wobbly little thing at your favorite dive bar, the game at Slick Willie's will take some adjustment. On Wednesdays, it costs $5 for a wristband that allows unlimited play all day long, and even though some other halls offer free pool for a couple hours, this deal has them beat.

The Catastrophic Theatre's production of the comedy/drama Hunter Gatherers won a rave from our reviewer, but Lee Williams failed to mention Greg Dean's incredible hard-on, waving around for all to see in the intimate Stages setting. Dean, playing a disturbed ex-jock, had been off-stage for a while before making his dramatic blood-engorged re-entrance, so we imagined him backstage furiously reading Hustlers and Penthouses in order to get ready. Alas, someone sitting closer to the actor than us reports that — unlike Teri Hatcher's breasts in Seinfeld – while it was fabulous, it was not real.

Hipsters, it seems, will do just about anything if there's enough of a retro-kitsch factor involved, which generally boils down to an idea that sounds really, really good when you're baked. Only a few short years ago, after all, sales and manufacturing of new vinyl LPs were as dead as Elvis, and now that's one of the fastest-growing (and only growing) sectors of the music business. Now, a few local bands have taken that a step or three further and resumed releasing new material on cassettes, those chunky plastic-and-magnetic-tape artifacts you haven't been able to play in a new car since around the turn of the century. (And that tend to melt in the stifling Houston heat and humidity should you leave them in said car.) Evidently, there are still enough old cars and jamboxes lying around Houston to convince bands like Muhamad Ali and Cop Warmth it's a viable medium, while Bright Men of Learning's Benjamin Davis Murphy — inspired by '90s lo-fi cassette kingpins Sebadoh — has planned a whole series of cassette-only releases. Pure hipster irony or remarkably farsighted forecasting, more and more people these days are ready to just push "play."

Restaurant CINQ at La Colombe D'Or Hotel
Jeff Balke

Everything's big in Texas — everything except La Colombe d'Or, that is. Billing itself as the smallest luxury hotel in the world, La Colombe has only six suites and a handful of courtyard apartments. There's also a four-star restaurant and well-appointed bar on-site. The hotel is the former family home of oilman W.W. Fondren, built in 1923. Did we say family home? We meant mansion. Opulent but without pretense, La Colombe is filled with museum-quality antiques and art. The low-key service (no intrusive waiters hovering over your shoulder), coupled with an emphasis on privacy and the picturesque setting, makes this the perfect place to spend a romantic weekend.

One lazy Houston afternoon, Umbrella Man bassist Nick Gaitan was sitting upstairs in his apartment on "The Island" at 3700 Main, the South Midtown building that houses the Continental Club, Tacos a Go-Go, Sig's Lagoon and Shoeshine Charley's Big Top Lounge. At the time, Gaitan was pulling down shifts at all of them, and as he stared out his window at the Ensemble/HCC MetroRail station, the makings of a song began stirring in his head: "I just walked up from the station / 26 steps up in the rain..." He finished the song in about 20 minutes, before the ride he was waiting on showed up, and titled it "I've Found My Weakness in You" after the abundance of attractive women who populate the block most weekend (and some weekday) nights. Not long after, Gaitan's boss Billy Joe Shaver heard him rehearsing it on the tour bus and liked it so much, he's already cut a version for his still-unreleased next album. Still, the version Gaitan sings most every Tuesday at Umbrella Man's Continental gig — and has recorded for that band's forthcoming release — remains the definitive one. "Weakness" may be about a very specific piece of real estate and what goes on there, but its laid-back, down-home vibe makes it an anthem all Houston can get behind.

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