For a while there, it seemed like every concert review we ran on the Houston Press's Rocks Off music blog contained some complaint about how the audience apparently found their own conversation much more interesting than whatever was happening onstage. It wasn't just us, either; we were at several shows where the performers admonished the crowd to lower their voices with varying degrees of sarcasm and disgust. Over the past year, local crowds may not have turned into church mice, but reviews where we've had to call them on it have grown few and far between. So we'd like to thank these audiences for (finally) realizing there are better places to catch up with their friends than at a concert, and thank them on the artists' behalf as well. That said, now we'll just shut up and watch the show.
Alley Theatre
We know, we know, not that grande dame downtown, not Big Sis; the Alley doesn't need another accolade! Oh, yes they do, especially after this past season. Most definitely, it was the best time overall in Houston theater (as long as you conveniently forget Wonderland, which went bye-bye on Broadway faster than Moose Murders). There was Martin McDonagh's mordant black comedy A Behanding in Spokane; the truly lighter-than-air rendition of J.M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan; Yasmina Reza's hilarious sitcom God of Carnage; Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning tale of family dysfunction August: Osage County; Peter Shaffer's hallucinogen about Mozart, Amadeus; Rajiv Joseph's world premiere Monster at the Door; and a champagne production of G.B. Shaw's sparkling Pygmalion. The entire season was produced with class and elegance to spare, acted to perfection and fulfilled theater's prime premise: Entertain us. The Alley outdid itself.
Sherlock's Baker St. Pub River Oaks
Houston was the proving ground for some of stand-up's most renowned — and groundbreaking — names. We're talking folks like Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison. Others, like Mitch Hedberg and Joe Rogan, recorded albums in H-town comedy clubs. Bob Newhart recorded his legendary debut album here — it was the first comedy platter to top the Billboard charts. Our point is, there's a rich comic history here (perhaps something in the bayou water?) and part of the excitement of going to Sherlock's open-mike Mondays is that you'll catch the next big name. Or, if not, you're still guaranteed to laugh your ass off. You probably have no idea how many talented, hardworking amateur comics there are in town, and you're doing yourself a disservice by not going at least once. (Hey — there's no cover, and they have $2 to $4 drink specials; that's enough to make you smile right there.) Get out and support local comedy. What else do you have to do on a Monday night?

Sherlock's is now closed, and the Houston Comedy Union's new home is Baker Street Pub in Rice Village.

Agora
Photo by Craig Hlavaty
No one would have thought, while they watched Agora engulfed in flames on Halloween Eve of last year, that the coffee and wine hangout would be back on its feet within mere months, just in time for the spring and great patio weather. The beloved Montrose location looked like a lost cause after the fire, which began at the antique store just next door, but the owners went into action as soon as the smoke cleared. Now the bar is back to normal, there is always a food truck out front, there is a giant phoenix painted on the side of the bar and people are back to throwing back bottles of wine and espresso as if last October 30 never happened.
Liberty Station
Approaching from the east, Liberty Station is one of Washington Avenue's last outposts of sanity before you hit the horror, the horror of the hardcore strip. Liberty Station is usually immune to the Ed Hardy afflictions of the rest of Washington; the converted old-timey gas station has an authentically bohemian, relaxed vibe. The bar pledges that it has "no crap on tap" and means it, and their specialty drinks often sport fresh herbs and fruit. It's dog- and bike-friendly, and the patio offers up bar sports like Cornhole and Jenga. A rotation of some of Houston's finest food trucks post up out front nightly. This is a place to chill and sip Gulf Coast-style. Those of you who want to get your JWOWW on can just keep a-steppin'.
Starbucks
This spot at the intersection at Montrose and Hawthorne is called "headquarters" by the gay community, and it's the top non-club place to refuel, flirt and ogle potential suitors. Visit the Montrose neighborhood hang on any given day during business hours and you'll find gay men peeking over their shoulders or from just above their laptop screens (which are usually dialed into Facebook or match.com) to evaluate the just-arrived customers that queue in front of the register. Sundays are especially the time to be seen because that's when Berryhill Baja Grill, which is located in the same strip mall, turns into "the" hot spot in the Montrose.
Mango's
For a while, local punk rockers stayed away from the longstanding Mango's because the at-the-time management wasn't into booking such acts. However, that flipped once again when a more left-of-field-minded crew took over the space at Westheimer and Taft. Now, nearly every Wednesday features a free show that includes the occasional touring band as well as local weirdos such as Fun Boys, Keno Sims, Rivers, Escatones, Rapeworm, White Crime and Cop Warmth. Additionally, the punk ante is sky-high with the bar's $2 canned Pabst Blue Ribbon and $1 well specials.
Well-known arts advocate and director of the literary group Inprint, Rich Levy is also among Houston's poetic elite. Work from his book Why Me: Poems, released in 2009, established him as a singular voice among the many clamoring to speak for the middle-aged, middle-class American male. The longing, the loneliness, the diminishing hope for a bright, shining life, are all captured with breathtaking detail, originality and, more often than not, humor. Observing the minutiae of everyday life, some of it excruciatingly important, some of it so minor in its meaning it defines nothingness, Levy sees it all and eloquently relays it to his readers.
When Downtown's Angelika Film Center closed under cover of night one August weekend last year, it felt like the final nail in the coffin of both the increasingly vacant Bayou Place and the indie film scene in Houston, leaving us just River Oaks Theatre and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for screenings. But in swept leading man Robert Redford, who even in his seventies is still playing the knight in shining armor. His Sundance Cinemas announced this spring that the former Angelika would mark the company's third theater location, reviving Bayou Place's potential as an entertainment district. Following renovations, the new theater is scheduled to open November 1.
Pianist Jade Simmons has added yet another credit to her already impressive résumé — international arts ambassador. A first runner-up at the Miss America competition in 2000 with a masters degree from Rice University, Simmons long ago proved that she is beautiful and smart. A recording artist for E1 (formerly Koch Classics) and one of only a handful of female African-American concert pianists, she is unquestionably very talented. And as the founder of the Impulse Artists Series, she is a generous mentor and guide to young, emerging musicians from around the world. In 2009, Simmons hosted the first-ever Webcast for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; this June she went off to Russia for two weeks to host the Webcast for the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. She represented the United States before an international audience of an estimated million-plus viewers (and looked gorgeous while she did it). Simmons has become more than an advocate for Houston's arts scene; she's our arts ambassador to the world.

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