Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
You can almost feel the smoke of a different era still hanging in the air at the Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club. On the stage, you'll likely find a full-bodied blues band with a twanging guitar, fierce keys and throaty vocalist who, yes, sounds like he may have just smoked a pack. Not a single wall, table or tile is without chipped paint in this dark joint. Old photos and posters of Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Dr. John leave little room for white space anyway. And in the center of it all are a few middle-aged couples dancing and twirling around so impressively in front of the stage that if you're young and single you think, "Life goals," and if you're old and married you think, "Why can't I do that?" This isn't a place where you go to gab — there's simply too much to absorb.
READERS' CHOICE: The Continental Club
Commercials on local TV were never supposed to make viewers pause to ponder the profound philosophical questions of life...until Texas Mattress Makers came along. The camera lingers lovingly over mattresses in production at the company's East End factory-showroom, as a disembodied voice asks a few simple questions in a tone that implies he's talking about a lot more than a good night's sleep: "What is a mattress?" "Where does it come from?" "How does it make you feel?" Soothing and sleepy, the narrator's voice barely reaches above a whisper, the exact opposite of Mattress Mack's hyper-caffeinated, high-volume late-night pitches of yore. Brilliant.
The lack of interior space at Satellite Bar isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially because it means you get a good, close-up look at the local and national acts taking the stage. This East End venue is the best place in town for experiencing a show right in your face, whether you like hardcore punk rock, electronic dance music or stand-up comedy. And there's a big backyard if you need to take a break for some air.
Mari Carmen Ramírez is on fire, leading the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in relentless pursuit of the best and brightest modern and contemporary art from Central and South America. Ramírez, the Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas, has a keen eye, and the museum's "Contingent Beauty" exhibit was an edgy showstopper with themes of poverty, political oppression and violence. We saw exciting installations, like the starfish-studded Woven Water: Submarine Landscape by María Fernanda Cardoso; the minimalist Stress (in memoriam) by Yoan Capote (incorporating thousands of human teeth); and Óscar Muñoz's video projection chronicling the desaparecidos. Both cerebral and beautiful, it was the sort of exhibit that stays in your mind long after it closes.
In its first year, Satellite Bar has already built a reputation for putting on shows that don't disappoint. The dark dive hosts mostly local and Texas bands, serving up everything from funky space rock to shoe-gazing fuzz. The small stage is tucked into the corner across from the bar, which offers an extensive selection of craft beers from breweries across the country. But the real draw at Satellite is its huge backyard: There are fire pits, tables and festive lighting, and every now and then, management sets up an outdoor stage. Satellite is exactly where you want to be on one of those clear, sweater-weather nights.
READERS' CHOICE: House of Blues
The Mad Potter's owner, Meredith McCord, battled dyslexia as a child, and she discovered that art was more than just a pretty distraction — it could actually facilitate communication. But your kiddos needn't concern themselves with that: All they need to know is that they'll get to choose from hundreds of different plates, bowls, mugs, figurines, whatchamacallits and knick-knacks, and then go to town with various and sundry paintbrushes to create their very own pottery. After three or four days that involve magic and fire, your miniature Michelangelo can return to see the piece in its final form. McCord says the process gives budding artists a real sense of accomplishment. It's also a great idea for birthdays.
For years terrestrial radio has struggled to remain relevant in the unending tide of digitally driven alternatives, but KPFT continues to demonstrate that, in the right hands, radio can still bring people together. Celebrating its 45th year on the air with a brand-new 100,000-watt transmitter last year, "The Mighty 90" now covers the entire Houston area and then some thanks to auxiliary frequencies in Galveston and Huntsville, which means its value as one of the very few non-corporate-controlled media outlets in the region has skyrocketed. One of the most important byproducts of such independence is a relentless focus on Houston that allows the station to involve as many voices from the community as possible, in both its music and its public-affairs programming. Now even more change than usual is looming, after longtime program director Ernesto Aguilar announced his departure this summer. His successor has huge, crucial shoes to fill.
READERS' CHOICE: 94.5 The Buzz
In H-Town's shrinking honky-tonk scene, the Firehouse Saloon still holds strong. The hard-to-miss roadhouse and its fire truck, located just off the Highway 59 feeder road near Fountain View Drive, offers three sizable bars, a big dance floor, some pool tables and the main attraction: live country and western bands. Texan and otherwise, they scoot boots, high heels, sneakers, sandals and every other footwear imaginable. The casual joint includes an upstairs perch with killer views of the acts, which, during Firehouse's 20-plus years of existence, have included Billy Joe Shaver, Pat Green, the Randy Rogers Band and Miranda Lambert.
Leon's Lounge has been a favorite Houston watering hole for decades for very good reason — the bartenders serve up expertly made cocktails that not only taste amazing but also get you thoroughly, happily drunk. We were relieved when Houston's oldest bar reopened after briefly shuttering last year, because it meant the booze- and history-soaked place would be back and serving martinis comprised of mostly vodka (or gin), lilac-colored aviations and the best old fashioneds to be found in the city.
Simple in concept yet complex in execution, "Intersections" shone just a bit more brightly in a pack of very strong contenders this past season at Rice University Art Gallery. Artist Anila Quayyum Agha laser-cut six wooden panels to form a six-foot cube, drawing inspiration from the Alhambra's geometric, Islamic-inspired decor. At its center was a sole bulb, projecting light, filigree patterns and shadows onto every surface of the gallery, as well as onto any viewer lucky enough to experience the installation. Agha, who grew up in Pakistan, was forbidden to worship in the mosque. Now she has created her own worship space, which was just as haunting and ethereal at Rice Gallery as it was upon its first showing at 2014's ArtPrize, netting her $300,000 in prize money and fast-tracking her career as an important contemporary artist.
It's no surprise that La Carafe, the history-saturated bar in the oldest commercial building in Houston, also boasts one of the most eclectic, fantastic jukeboxes around. Any night the sounds of Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday or the Ink Spots will come drifting out of the downtown Houston bar before the jukebox switches over to jangle out some Lightnin' Hopkins and Townes Van Zandt, and then rounds the evening out with Frank Sinatra followed by more traditional juke selections by Hank Williams and Springsteen. The odd thing about La Carafe's jukebox is that all of the music fits together and makes for a seamless listening and drinking experience. Whether you're deep in your cups or celebrating with friends, the jukebox at this place always manages to churn out the right tune.