On stage, the flavor is mostly local, though some national acts with Houston ties have played the club. If there's a drawback here, it's the acoustics, which with their long decay time are nightmarish. Between the echoes and the crowd noise, serious listening is restricted to a few areas. But in front of the club, where the band performs by the window, some of Houston's finest musicians play to receptive audiences. -- P.J.M.
Critic's pick: Cezanne
Best C&W Venue
This is the place where locals take out-of-town visitors in search of "the real Texas." In its unlikely location hard by River Oaks, Blanco's regularly fills with a sea of Stetsons, and resounds to the muffled thunder of hundreds of boots on the club's wooden boards. The crowds are hearty and hail-fellow-well-met; with much back-slapping and good-natured cussing, they rib each other and knock back the Shiners and (not so long ago) the Pearls (R.I.P.). A regular host to the likes of John Evans, Davin James and Houston Marchman, the club is riding the cresting Texas music wave into what appears to be a bright future. -- J.N.L.
Critic's pick: Continental Club
Best Latin Venue
Elvia's Latin Grill and Bar
Although the folks at this downtown establishment are modest when it comes to accepting the Best Latin Venue award, even they aren't altogether surprised. On the weekends, this restaurant/bar/dance palace becomes something like a Space City Studio 54. A long line forms around the block. Crowds of people clamor around the front door in the hopes of getting in and gaining that feeling of importance.
Once they do get past those velvet ropes, they're treated to an entertaining, exotic experience: music, dancing, women, men. It's like one big Miami Sound Machine video! "We try to do everything for our customers," says manager Augustine Lopez. That means staying one tango step ahead of everyone else. "We try to be fresh, you know, every weekend. We try to bring good bands, good music and big things -- stuff with the lights and the different atmosphere."
With its musical mix of merengue, salsa and other exotic genres -- as well as its good drinks and tasty delicacies -- Elvia's hopes that others will come to this spot and do the conga without worrying that they look like a freak. -- C.D.L.
Critic's pick: Elvia's Latin Grill and Bar
Best Folk Venue
McGonigel's Mucky Duck
The Harvard Business Review ought to use the Duck in its "case study" section as an example of how to run a club. In a business with an 80 percent failure rate, the McGonigels have turned the Duck into one of the best folk venues in the country. Part of the secret is Rusty's acumen for breaking artists. From Martin Sexton to Eddie From Ohio, the Duck brings them to town way ahead of the buzz. Local audiences trust that even if they've never heard of a musician, they'll get a good show. It doesn't hurt that every seat in the house is a good one. And did we mention the superior kitchen and the great choice of beers (and the huge beer garden out back in which to enjoy them)? No wonder audiences pick the Duck as the city's Best Folk Venue year after year. -- A.H.
Critic's pick: The Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe
Lifetime Achievement Award
Blind Lemon Jefferson was the father of Texas blues, and T-Bone Walker was the son. (Fitting that they first met on the banks of the Trinity River.) The Holy Spirit of the music resounds in the guitars of everyone who has come after, especially that of Pete Mayes. If all of this sounds a little too metaphysical, consider this: In the past five years, Mayes, who suffers from diabetes, has undergone the amputations of both legs and open-heart surgery, and has battled lesions on the fingers of his fretting hand. For a time, it looked like his live music days were through. But not for this tough son of a gun from Double Bayou. Mayes has fought back and this very week returns to the stage at Paesanos downtown. -- J.N.L.