Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
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.
The bungalow-like bar (its name stands for Reopened Houston Avenue Bar, supposedly) opened last year only a couple of blocks from Washington Avenue, but light-years away from that strip's preening see-and-be-seen sensibility. REHAB is just a bar, and that's all it is: Cold beer and mixed drinks at downturn-friendly prices, plus an affable staff, plenty of outdoor seating and a jukebox loaded with all the honky-tonk and classic rock anyone could ask for. Lately, local musician Mitch Jacobs has been acting as the jukebox one night a week as well. Toss some darts or horseshoes if you're feeling competitive, and keep an eye out for Alfred, the bar's cat, who is fond of lounging on the canopy above the patio deck.
Despite being only in his early thirties, Alex Luster has been shooting video in the Houston streets for 20 or so years, having hustled his way into a job at a Spanish-language news station at the tender age of 14. That experience shows in Stick 'Em Up!, his debut feature-length documentary about Houston's wheat-pasting street poster artists. While he has technical skills lessers only dream of, Luster also has a few talents that simply can't be taught: among them, an appreciation for the city's dark corners and landscape we've never seen the better of, as well as an impeccable sense of comic timing. Stick 'Em Up! has yet to be officially released, but it turned the house at River Oaks three times during a spring sneak preview and had the audience howling for more each time. We're predicting a bright future for both the film and its director.
Picking a derby nickname is one of the most important rites of passage in the flat track world. It's got to be clever, and must also instill fear in the hearts of fellow skaters. Bonus points if it calls to mind a buxom but imposing beauty. It's for all of these reasons that we chose Kym KarSmashUin, who also wears the imposing number 13. No way we'd mess with her. Annnnd point, Psych Ward Sirens.
Perhaps you remember that in the days B.Z. (before Zuckerberg), if someone wanted to invite you somewhere — be it a birthday party or their band's CD release show — they would send you an "eVite," an e-mail that directed you to a quaint little RSVP site where you could reply yes, no or maybe, perhaps leave a brief message and go about your day. Some people still use this system, which has turned out to be a smart move. Facebook invitations are easy to ignore and ultimately misleading — one informal calculus says that only about one in ten people who replies "yes" will actually bother to show up. Since eVites work from a mailing list, they're specifically targeted to people who have already expressed an interest in something, such as the monthly acoustic concert series Heights Live! at Heights Presbyterian Church. Every few weeks, another eVite shows up inviting us to an intimate evening with some of the top local and regional talent around, such as Austin harmonizers The Trishas or the Honky Tonk Blood crew of John Evans, Hank Schyma and Johnny Falstaff. Quick, easy and painless. By the way, Heights Live! also has a Facebook page. They're not complete Luddites.
Fans of photographer Chuy Benitez have watched the young artist grow by leaps and bounds over the last few years. After graduating from Notre Dame in 2005, he came to the University of Houston's MFA program and quickly got noticed on the local arts scene. A show at Project Row Houses in 2008 led to a well-received FotoFest exhibit at Lawndale Art Center. Benitez is currently teaching photography at St. John's School and Rice University as well as serving on the board of directors for the Houston Center for Photography, in addition to his own projects. He has two big shows on the horizon. He'll be participating as a photographer in the celebration of Houston's 175th anniversary, and he'll be curating a FotoFest show at Lawndale Art Center.
It's tucked away in that confusing little welter of diagonal streets near where North Main and Airline Drive snake under Loop 610, and it's tiny, so the Rose Garden is literally hard to find. Also concealed is the culture it represents: that of the Polish Texans who came to this city from rural Texas in the years just before and after World War II. That's why the bar is red and white, just like the Polish flag, and that's why (if you're lucky) you'll eat some of the finest homemade kielbasa there this side of Chicago. That's also why the jukebox is a unique blend of hardcore C&W and Fayette County-style Texas polka. Czechs weren't the only Slavs in Texas, and the Rose Garden stands as living proof.
Neither trendy nor gimmicky, Joe Mancuso consistently produces solid, stunning work. Floral forms are his stock in trade — a red flag in the case of a lesser artist. But instead of making hokey or insipidly decorative work, Mancuso makes flowery paintings and wall-based constructions with poetry and elegance. From attenuated linear flower sculptures made with white-painted sticks, to lushly colored encaustic paintings, to large, flat blooms made from wooden petals, the artist is endlessly inventive. Mancuso's work is a lesson to those of us who have rolled our eyes at the thought of yet another flower painting.
Here's our exhaustive criterion when it comes to drinking coffee: It has to be good. Annnndddd that's about it. All of the bells and whistles in terms of decor and iPod playlists are fine, but if the warm liquid that fills our barely awake beings tastes like brown water, our caffeine-deprived benchmark will never be met. It's true that Catalina boasts an inviting and chic space in the Sixth Ward, but they're nailing the most important part — the coffee — thanks to creative yet not too fancy takes on goods from Amaya Roasting Company, which harvests coffee beans from countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica and Ethiopia.
We love the black-and-white-tiled floor and the raggedy old couches in their little nooks scattered about. We love the jukebox in all its soul, rap, classic rock and new wave glory. We love the wintertime fire pits out back, and the huge net tent in the way back of the building that recalls some haven where Hawkeye and Trapper John would swill martinis and flirt with nurses at the 4077th, and we also love the $2 Lone Stars, the crawfish boils, the karaoke nights, the bags of just-plucked-from-the-Gulf oysters occasionally there for the shucking. Big Star is arty but not pretentious, just like its owner Brad Moore.
This year's winner for composer, Dominick DiOrio, spends a lot of time in school, both as a student and a teacher. He's on track to receive his doctorate from the Yale University School of Music next May, and he's an associate professor of music at Lone Star College in Conroe. But it's not just his educational credentials that caught our eye. DiOrio takes this year's nod for composer because of his recent work with the Divergence Vocal Theater. He wrote the opera Klytemnestra, working with librettist and DVT Artistic Director Misha Penton. Based on the Greek legend of Clytemnestra, the murderous wife of King Agamemnon, Klytemnestra was well-received and cemented DiOrio's reputation as a forward-thinking young composer filled with new ideas, ready to tackle anything.
For NOLA-philes, there's nothing quite like the Big Easy in Houston. This little dive sits on otherwise swanky Kirby Drive, and though it's not much to look at, it's a treat for the ears. With live music every night of the week, the good times never stop rolling here. For just $5 on Fridays and Saturdays — and for free the rest of the week — you'll hear Houston's best cry out the blues. Don't miss zydeco night every Sunday, where Texans somehow adapt the two-step to the raucous fun of Cajun music.