Fonde Recreation Center
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.
George's Country Sports Bar
Ever since it opened in 2006, George has been one of our favorite neighborhood haunts. You don't have to be gay to feel at home in this laid-back Montrose joint; if you like friendly bartenders and clientele, kick-ass happy hours, pool, darts, and good conversation, then you'll be just fine. (You don't even have to like country music or sports, either — there's just no way you won't like this place.) Whether you want to relax on the patio or watch the game on one of the flat-screens inside, you'll probably find that George is one of those places where you know your first visit is just the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
We don't know of a lot of choreographers who go on to become award-winning film directors, but it's a transition Shawn Welling seems to have made quite easily. Welling's Project Aether, a science-fiction feature making its world premiere, took home three of the top trophies at WorldFest, including Best Actress for Joy Willard and Best Feature. A patchwork of the sci-fi, horror and conspiracy theory genres, Project Aether concerns a family that's moved into a haunted house, an event that interests several shady government types. Welling, who not only directed but also wrote Project Aether, has a cinematographer's eye and his films have a striking visual quality to them. We can't wait to see what he does next.
Warehouse Live
Canned Acoustica didn't start out as a concert series. Photographer and local music junkie Mark C. Austin planned last November's inaugural Acoustica as a way to see several of his favorite artists in the same place and help out the Houston Food Bank for the holidays. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that several acts who didn't play begged him to do another one; there have since been three more, with May's installment collecting donations for the Japanese Red Cross Society. With shades of Houston's storied singer-songwriter tradition born at places like Anderson Fair and the Old Quarter, each Acoustica brings together about a dozen of Houston's most talented (and altruistic) artists for an electricity-free evening, and has already spawned some unique collaborations, like rapper Fat Tony fronting artsy classical ensemble Two Star Symphony. Who knows what future Acousticas will bring, but Austin's brainchild has already proved that the local music scene's heart is as big as its talent.
Shannon Emerick recently played two iconic characters who bookend the 20th century, and she played both of them to perfection. This year, she played George Bernard Shaw's ideal woman, the eponymous heroine in Candida (1898). As Shaw's "new woman" — Candida is cool and regally elegant, always in control and much smarter than the two men who love her and make her choose between them — Emerick was the apex and driving force of Classical Theatre's definitive, humorous, visually stunning production. Last year, for Main Street Theater, Emerick hauntingly illuminated the cool, intellectual Hannah, the linchpin of the contemporary scenes in Tom Stoppard's time-tripping Arcadia (1993), perhaps the most satisfying — and romantic — play by English theater's resident genius. As both the ultimate Victorian wife and the smart but icy, mod English female, Emerick clarified the very essence of both plays and yet remained her own self. She has that rare gift of illumination, discovery and adventurous fun that some actors say they have but never quite manage. Emerick delivers gloriously.
Truth be told, you had us at "stark naked," but we were happy to find that there was much more to this start-up theater company than just a great name. Husband-and-wife team Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, who also had a hand in the Brave Dog Theatre, founded Stark Naked with the intention of slowly building a strong, bold company that would mount courageous, if not outright audacious, productions. And they've done just that. The first show for the new company was Debt Collectors, a modern adaptation of Swedish playwright August Strindberg's 1888 drama Creditors. Alley Theatre company member David Rainey joined Lehl and Tobin-Lehl onstage for that production, which Lehl adapted. It was daring choice, one that proved to be right on the money given the glowing reviews it earned last May.
If you saw thunder and lightning over Catastrophic Theatre early last season, you witnessed the volcanic performance of Matt Kelly in Jason Nodler's whiplash adaptation of Bluefinger, The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood. This rock opera dissected the Dutch cult singer/artist/druggie/sex addict in the most theatrical way possible: with imagination, wicked wit, sonic boom and a performance of a lifetime. As wild man Brood, Kelly was a walking train wreck, seeming to get more dissipated as the show progressed.  While his life destructed, there wasn't a moment when your eyes left him. He was that mesmerizing, whether wailing heavy metal, getting a blow job and shooting up simultaneously — which deserves its own award — or melting down in the most spectacular fashion. Like a dream rush, tortured artist Brood came at us in oblique little scenes, with music the binding tie. With medical precision, Kelly's razor-sharp performance was overpoweringly physical and, without question, absolutely star-making and terrifying at the same time.
KTRU Lives. The beloved Rice University station may be gone from the FM airwaves — though those with HD radios can find it on KPFT's HD-2 channel — but Sam Foster's nifty little app puts Rice Radio as close as your touchscreen. (It's free, too.) The design is simple, just the locally famous yellow bumper sticker and the title, artist, album and label of the current song. As one of the very few outlets in town that relishes playing local artists, KTRU is an invaluable asset to the Houston music community, and although it still sucks how the university sold the FM frequency and license out from under the station, Foster's app does help ease some of the sting. Even better, you'll never have to worry about spotty reception again.
You may not have realized it yet, but Houston is in the middle of a genuine rap renaissance, with talented MCs and DJs dropping new tracks almost daily, and another must-have mixtape about once a week. We asked the Houston Press's main rap writer, Shea Serrano, for his choice of Houston's choicest lyricist, and he said it had to be Dante Higgins, who first appeared on our radar back in January with his School Boy Music tape. Higgins, says Serrano, "is among the fiercest talents in the New Houston rapper movement. Examined within themselves, his words are wonderfully nonsensical and bizarre ('I'm so used to my sofa!'; 'I ain't goin' nowhere! But if I go somewhere, it'll probably be Miami.'). Pieced together, though, when he webs them together into a single narrative, it is as close to watching a book as you're going to get."

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