Blaffer Art Museum
Members of the local art community are frequently saying that Claudia Schmuckli needs to get more love for Blaffer Art Museum's top-notch exhibitions. In January 2009, Schmuckli became Blaffer's director and chief curator following a nine-month nationwide search (which, by the way, wasn't really necessary since Schmuckli has been under Blaffer's nose, in varying capacities, since 2004). Since then, the former Museum of Modern Art assistant curator has pumped more left-of-field life into the venue, including the "Museum of Broken Relationships" show, which featured symbols of failed partnerships from the Broken Relationships' permanent collection. Beginning early next year, her curatorial work will shine even more when Blaffer's $2 million renovation is unveiled.
Fitzgerald's
What makes Pegstar an "innovative" promoter? A few years ago, founder Jagi Katial didn't buy into the conventional wisdom that Houston was a terrible town for indie-rock, and has reaped the benefits ever since. Katial kept making offer after offer to bands whose first instinct may have been to bypass Houston in favor of Dallas, Austin or New Orleans, and enough accepted that now a different kind of word of mouth is going around — that Houston had some of the most enthusiastic crowds on their tours. Things really went into overdrive when Pegstar partnered with Free Press Houston to start Free Press Summer Fest and then take over Fitzgerald's. This year Summer Fest was stacked with headliners like Weezer, Ween and Cut Copy who weren't even on tour — flown in specially for the festival — and Fitz's rarely if ever has an off night, with capacity crowds upstairs and down. Another promising trend Pegstar is bringing to Houston is that several recent shows have been free for patrons 21 and up.
Royal Oak Bar & Grill
Royal Oak came on the scene towards the end of 2010, a newly minted addition to the Montrose bar scene and the next venture from the owners of the hipster-Valhalla watering hole Boondocks just a block away. Royal Oak is shinier and brighter than Boons, and it has one killer food and appetizer menu that can go up against any of the so-called gastropubs in town. Start with a pint of Fireman's #4 and a plate of truffle fries, soaked to perfection in truffle oil, Parmesan cheese and fresh-cut herbs. Bring a friend, because unless you haven't eaten in a few days or you just ran a marathon, you will not be seeing the bottom of the pile on your own. As for entrées, you can't go wrong with a burger or the Gulf shrimp & grits. More than likely, Royal Oak will be the only stop on your nightly crawl once you have seen the menu. Food comas aren't a joke, kid.
The Rice University Boniuk Center for Religious Studies and Tolerance turned to the Museum of Cultural Arts Houston (a past Houston Press MasterMinds Award winner) to add a visual arts aspect to the 2011 Sacred Sites Quests program. The program hosts high school students on an annual tour of churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship. This year, the students visited 16 sites, after which they designed and created a four-piece mural reflecting both the unity and diversity among the various traditions they observed. The four panels, which include a tree topped by a globe instead of leaves and a couple staring at a star-shaped sun, were installed on the Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston headquarters in May, becoming the first public art project of its kind.
A couple of things need to be on point for a juke joint to be dubbed as such. For one, it can't boast any mainstream online presence (e.g., Facebook, Twitter or even a business Web site) whatsoever. For two, absolutely, under no circumstances, can the place be an ironic sort of hang that's all hipster'd out. Third Ward BYOB bar Farrah's Pub passes both criteria and instead showcases, without even trying, an authentic juke-joint experience. (If there was any question, try ordering a Lone Star or Pabst Blue Ribbon and see what type of look you get in return.) Pay $2 on a Monday night, gaze at the palm frond decor reminiscent of an African chop bar (Motherland slang for a cheap roadside bar), bring a decanter of your favorite liquor and kick back to the sounds of the house band playing a mixture of some of the best soul jams, blues joints and love dusties ever created.
Leon's Lounge
As Houston's oldest continuously-operating bar (not including icehouses), Leon's always had its stained-glass and crystalline charms. There was even a level of elegance remaining beneath the nicotine grit and spilled Busch residue of the past 60-plus years. Last year, Pete and Vera Mitchell of Under the Volcano fame bought the bar and at last revealed their months-long facelift, and what a job they did polishing this dustiest of gems. While the bar still feels old and funky, they've removed the naugahyde and other synthetics, replaced the carpets, scrubbed up and installed new tiles, varnished the wood on the bar and restored the bar's overhanging chandelier to its ancient glory. While it might not rival the Julia Ideson Library's renovation in scale, it does do so in execution. And that's a good thing, because for some people, a town's oldest bar says more about it than its oldest library.
Dominic Walsh Dance Theater Studio
Dominic Walsh Dance Theater isn't yet ten years old, but it's already a fixture as one of the great contemporary dance companies of our time. The cadre of eight dancers master new ways of moving under the tutelage of Walsh, a longtime principal with the Houston Ballet and 2008 winner of the prestigious Princess Grace Award for choreography. Walsh pushes the notion of "classical ballet" to its breaking point in his own choreography, blending matchless technical precision with distinct and unashamed sensuality. Costumes are often unembellished, accenting and celebrating the human form. This is truly ballet for the twenty-first century.
Roger Wood gets tapped as local author this year for his entire body of work. There was the 2003 title Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues (Jack and Doris Smothers Series in Texas History, Life and Culture), a look at Houston's especially rich history of blues, a collaborative effort with photographer James Fraher. In 2006, it was Texas Zydeco, another Wood and Fraher project, this time capturing the state's colorful heritage of "la-la" music. Most recently it was House of Hits: The Story of Houston's Gold Star/SugarHill Recording Studios, which Wood co-wrote with Andy Bradley, SugarHill's longtime audio engineer. For being Houston's prolific music historian, Wood gets a big "woop, woop."
There is nothing quite like starting off your weekend with a cold Red Stripe in one hand and a sweaty dance partner in the other, while you hear the smooth sounds of early ska, mento, rocksteady, and the best bedrock R&B at the monthly A Fistful Of Soul parties in the front room of the Mink on Main. DJs and Houston scene vets Stewart Anderson and John Baldwin lead the parties, which usually end up fogging the windows of the bar up, regardless of the weather outside. Be on the lookout for special guest DJs from around the Lone Star State as well. Admission is always free, drink specials abound, and the dancing is always face to face. Now if they could only make more room out on the front sidewalk for all the vintage scooters that show up.
Even without the confetti and streamers they are fond of sometimes, Wild Moccasins easily put on Houston's best stage show gig after gig. They even baked cupcakes for their fans once. Simply put, no other band in town that we can think of has so much fun playing together. The Moccasins, whose 2010 LP Skin Collision Past and 2009 EP Microscopic Metronomes were released by New West Records earlier this year (a proper New West debut is in the works), always look like they're having a ball, delivering their bubbly indie-pop tunes with the kind of obvious chemistry that only comes to bands who are best friends on and off stage. The Moccasins turn every show into a party, and everyone's invited.

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