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.
While big brother White Oak Music Hall's indoor stages have only been running a few weeks, the Pegstar-owned Raven Tower opened this past spring, and the music has never stopped, not even when the city shut down the eagles-nest "bachelor pad" observation deck. Even as a relatively small, partially open-air venue, Raven offers two different performing areas in the Pavilion and the Patio, of which the latter is always no-cover. It's quickly become a popular album-release spot for locals such as Catch Fever, Drop Out Vegas and Guilla, as well as a destination for bigger indie names like Wye Oak and David Bazan. No Edgar Allan Poe spoken-word nights that we've heard of yet, but the Raven has even begun spreading its wings beyond music by hosting Sunday morning yoga sessions and a tasty brunch.
In the interest of hastening and possibly short-circuiting the delay between total obscurity and posthumous renown (see Forrest Bess, Henry Darger and that Dutch guy who cut off his ear), let us praise Mike Hollis, one of the most original and committed painters Houston has produced, still living here and still working. His paintings —always changing, always ahead of the pack — are consistently engaging and strangely likable lozenges of hard, funky abstraction with a pop-color palette and a wordless wit. Over the course of his career he's shown at Texas Gallery and the Station Museum, not to mention in New York and elsewhere. Let the record state that he was also a one-time member of the Red Krayola's Familar Ugly mega-band, a psychedelic hooligan and an early punk, an artist's artist dedicated to the whole enchilada, an emblem of the anarchy and chaos for which Houston has prided itself all these years.
Housed in a historic downtown building on Travis, El Big Bad's three levels might seem a little daunting at first. But take the hike to that top level and step outside to the simple but tasteful patio, and you'll see one of the best views to be had in downtown. The scenery goes especially well with one of the Tex-Mex powerhouse's infused tequila libations. We especially like to stake out this prime real estate for Cinco de Mayo, but we're game for any time of the year.
READERS' CHOICE: Axelrad Beer Garden
Clicks promises a billiards experience free of warped cues, and that attention to detail is evident as soon as you walk into this highly entertaining and friendly pool joint. Clicks may call itself "upscale," but that doesn't mean "snooty." The prices are reasonable — tables are $12 an hour in the evenings, and around $5 before 7 p.m. If those prices are still too rich for your blood, rack 'em up on Mondays for half-off. We find alcohol greatly improves our marksmanship, so we're especially fond of the drink specials, which include $3.75 Long Island Iced Teas on Tuesdays and $2.75 domestic brews on Sundays. Think of Clicks as the equivalent of a great, clean break — ain't no scratchin' here.
READERS' CHOICE: Slick Willie's Family Pool Hall