There's a reason why the 2011 Texas Biennial chose Box 13 as Houston's only space for the month-long art showcase. The East End gallery and co-op, for three-plus years, has boasted a wing-dinger of a reputation for contemporary artists showcasing left-of-field works. The Harrisburg Boulevard warehouse, which used to house a sewing-machine factory, is one of the city's best artist-run non-profits and features creative types such as Elaine Bradford, Dennis Nance and Jenny Schlief showcasing traditional wall pieces, avant-garde installations and experimental performance art. Along with the Biennial gig, Box 13 was the Bayou City's only venue to be chosen for "Low Lives 3 — International Festival of Live Networked Performance."
Salsa hot spots come and go, but Tropicana will always be there when you need to dance away the night. Inside an unassuming strip mall storefront on Fondren, you'll find a Casablanca-esque nightclub of dark reds and deep mahogany. The hardwood dance floor is spacious, and the salseros who wear it down are the city's best. Weekends are a blast at Tropicana, when you can groove to the bachata, meringue, salsa and chacha of live Latin bands. We love Tropicana for its mindblowingly diverse crowd. In a single night, you can twirl your way through the arms of a United Nations league of salseros, all brought together by the desire to dance.
Houston is a hip-hop city through and through. We birthed the Geto Boys, UGK, Slim Thug and Paul Wall, just to name a select few. But in the past two or three years, the scene has seen an influx of new blood, raised not just on hip-hop and R&B but also on punk rock and metal. That intermingling has given us new superstars in the making like Fat Tony, B L A C K I E and Ill Liad, who add a tint of spikiness and an old-school thrash sensibility to their beats and verses. The one to make the biggest splash so far has been the jet-setting Fat Tony, who began playing smallish shows upstairs at Boondocks and graduated to opening for the Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg in the past year. Meanwhile, B L A C K I E keeps digging into more and more industrial sounds, becoming more of a noise act in the grand tradition of Houston legends like Rusted Shut, and Ill Liad is back after a personal and spiritual detour with new album Dope 6ic.
Opening with "Stomp and Holler," Woodlands native Hayes Carll's KMAG YOYO is one of the most ass-shaking and gut-wrenching albums to come from a Texan's brain-casing this year. The follow-up to 2008's critically adored Trouble in Mind, February's KMAG YOYO (soldier slang for "kiss my ass guys, you're on your own") pulls no punches when it comes to politics or romance. The title song details a crooked enlisted man's government-funded LSD trips, and "Another Like You" is an Urban Cowboy tale for the 21st century, complete with references to The View and spray-on tans. The second-to-last track, "Grateful for Christmas," is destined to become the go-to fractured holiday anthem for the foreseeable future, or until Robert Ellis writes his own.
Founders Tom Stell and Leighza Walker started the nonprofit Obsidian Art Space as a way to promote original work, and they've done just that. Obsidian Art Space already has hosted such performances as the world premiere of Selkie, A Sea Tale by Divergence Vocal Theater. The space also played host to August in August (a presentation of work by August Strindberg), The Great Storm (new plays based on Hurricane Ike) and, most recently, A Midsummer Night's Dream — The Unhatched Project by Unhinged Productions (a gender-bending take on the Shakespeare classic).
Alex Gregg is the epitome of the classic bartender archetype: rolled-up sleeves, a broad and genuine smile and a can-do attitude. Gregg will mix up absolutely any drink you can fathom, and a few more of his own creation. The ultra-creative cocktail menu at Anvil is peppered with his inventions, but that doesn't mean the man can't also put together a soulful and straightforward Manhattan. There's no pretense here, either; Gregg is as friendly and open as they come. So put yourself in his hands and let this Renaissance man (did we mention he's a talented photographer, too?) captain your cocktail ship.
For a journal that focuses on works of 300 words or less — that's the "nano" in the name — it's a shame we have to wait half a year between issues. Luckily, Houston-based NANO Fiction keeps us tided over with a regular reading series, a summer reading list, plus a contest that comes with a $500 prize and your name in print. What makes the journal better than most is its laid-back, self-deprecating and altogether un-snooty personality. In a word, accessible. But not altogether plebeian.
Some of the interesting eye candy drinkers will find at this Wakefield strip locale: Wooden nickels as tender, pieces of whittled beige carpet as buckets-of-beer coasters and a cash register propped up with an upside down Smirnoff Ice cardboard box. And that's just the start of the no-frills offerings — such as cheap Lone Star bottles and women in their mid-forties regaling unprompted tales of lost virginity — that The Dutchman offers. If you're lucky, you may even get to tip back a few with the Lone Star Saloon owner, who sometimes posts up at the cozy joint.
The area near downtown has more than its share of U.S. Presidents rendered in artistic medium, from David Addicks's Mount Rushmore to the oddly short but all-seeing George Bush Monument looking over Buffalo Bayou. But our favorite is the collage of images on the north side of the famed Fonde Rec Center, once the hangout of Moses Malone and Clyde Drexler. The mishmash of images include George W. Bush front-and-center next to a phalanx of missiles, wrecking balls, what appear to be the Blue Angels in formation, half of the White House, a tiny George H.W. Bush being sworn in, and a child reading a book. We're not sure what it all means, but it's reminiscent of North Korean propaganda posters in its artistic glory.
There has been a lot of talk in the past two or three years about Houston's music scene undergoing a renaissance, but it takes more than just talk to push it to the next level. Shortly after he took over as president and CEO of New West Records, the rootsy indie label based in Austin and Los Angeles, George Fontaine signed three of the scene's most promising young talents in indie-poppers: the Wild Moccasins, singer-songwriter Robert Ellis and roots-rockers Buxton. Fontaine became a fan of all three thanks to their frequent in-stores at Cactus Music, where he is a partner, and was a regular presence at their shows long before he closed the deal. Since then, all three have either released albums or are about to, and have spent considerable time on the road, giving them valuable real-world experience and the label a new generation of talent to go alongside venerable artists like Steve Earle, John Hiatt and the Old 97's. He's not even a full-time resident — splitting his time between here and Athens, Georgia, where he teaches a music-business class at the University of Georgia — but by what he's done for the local music scene, it's pretty clear Houston is where Fontaine's heart is.

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