Every other Sunday evening (or so), a group of musicians gathers at the Barley House. As night bleeds into morning, they trade off the spotlight for short acoustic sets--nothing fancy, just a guy and a guitar and a stool, perhaps, the kind of earnest-looking scene that sends most beer-drinkers clamoring for the check. Except these are some of the best musicians in Dallas--members of Sorta and Deadman and The Shimmers--and though they're surely happy to see a large crowd gather, they're really playing for each other, trying to impress and entertain and surprise the other musicians. The set list continues to change, too, with special guests and tweaked lineups each week, meaning two shows are never the same. It's a wonderfully relaxing, feel-good way to end a week. Pull up a stool, order a beer and eavesdrop on some of the finest musical conversations around.

Textile artist Sue Benner works in cloth, thread and dyes, but there the resemblance of her creations to the quilts your grandmother made ends. Using small pieces of fabric to create dynamic abstract wall hangings, Benner says her current pieces are about relationships, "color-to-color, shape-to-shape, pattern-to-pattern." Educated in molecular biology and trained as a medical illustrator, Benner says her work relies on the underlying structure and organizing principles found in nature. The effect is always of joyous, riotous color. Shown internationally, Benner's pieces are in many private and corporate collections and are available in Dallas through private dealer Marie Park.

Dallas Museum of Art

Going to the museum is a lot like going to church: It occurs during the daylight hours (usually Sunday), it's good for you (read: boring), there's an endless supply of old people around, and whatever you do, you can't make a peep. That's why the DMA's Late Nights series is such a revelation. Running once a month on Fridays from 6 p.m. to midnight, the series opens up those echoing, hallowed halls to bands, DJs, films, wine tastings, twilight gallery tours and more. It's kind of like the cultural version of a church lock-in. But this isn't mere "edutainment"; this place actually rocks. Participants have included such buzzworthy acts as I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, DJ Spooky and Cat Power. Museums should be a place to celebrate excellence in art and culture and music, not just a place to keep both hands carefully at your side. So raise your voices, and your wine glasses.

The Crow Collection of Asian Art

Huge art mainstays like the DMA and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth do well to veil the money-hungry concrete jungle that is our fair town, but it's the beauty of smaller collections that makes us say, "Are we really in Dallas?" Case in point: the Trammell and Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art, whose focus on ancient works of the largest continent actually rivals a similar collection at the Louvre. Yeah, we said it. The jade pieces here are mind-blowingly intricate, as are the dozens of royal decorations scattered through the building. Keep your eyes peeled, as one of Dallas' most amazing pieces is tucked into the very far corner of the collection. Walk through the origami swan hallway, and once you enter the shrine room, turn around and you'll see a door that looks off-limits to the general public. In there, you'll find a single piece of wood that has been carved into dozens of individual warriors, horses and elephants, which stand on top of each other to form a near-solid mass. You may think you're hallucinating when you see it, but even drugs aren't this good.

Granada Theater

For about two months solid, it seemed, the Granada Theater showed nothing but old episodes of Absolutely Fabulous and maybe a football game. The beautiful space, once a movie house and then a live music venue, had tumbled to the point of hosting a few concerts a month and otherwise lying fallow. That changed when CD World owner Mike Schoder bought the place earlier this year and refashioned it as a comfortable, considerate music club for adults, the kind who can't always stay out till 2 a.m. to see their favorite band. The place is smoke-free, serves food and hosts the kind of shows that grown-ups want to see: Wilco, Jack Ingram, Malford Milligan. Will it fly? We certainly hope so. Schoder has proven himself a passionate musical advocate, and the success of CD World indicates a market savvy. Either way, we applaud him for taking the risk.

Talk about stand and deliver. For two years in a row (2002 and 2003), SEM, one of DISD's court-mandated magnet high schools, had more minority students pass the advanced placement calculus exam than any other school in the nation. It's even more remarkable considering how small the student body is. With only 400 students, 113 passed the test in 2003; of those, 60 were Hispanic or African-American. On the AP chemistry exam, minority students at SEM tied for first place in the state; of the 23 SEM students who passed, 10 were minorities. "It always starts with the teacher," says Gregg Fleisher, president of the nonprofit AP Strategies, which works with school districts and businesses to manage AP programs. "And SEM Principal Richard White has recruited some of the best calculus teachers in the state." The program is also supported by the Texas Instruments Foundation and the Advanced Academic Services department in DISD, which provides lead teachers, curriculum and other materials. We know the program works. Now, why can't it work everywhere?

A good director will inspire actors to give their best performances and let the playwrights' words shine without the directing getting in the way. René Moreno, who directed eight productions in Dallas and Fort Worth theaters this year, is one reason so many good actors are staying in the area instead of migrating toward the coasts. They're eager to collaborate with this actor-centric artist who says he just tries to elicit "good, honest work" from his casts. Since his first directing gig at Kitchen Dog Theater in 1996, Moreno, 45, has been in demand here and at Milwaukee Rep (where he'll stage Cabaret soon). Dallas audiences have applauded his work recently for the spitfire bio-musical La Lupe for Martice Enterprises, Edward Albee's cryptic Marriage Play at WingSpan, Arthur Miller's gut-wrenching All My Sons at Classical Acting Company, God's Man in Texas at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre and The Drawer Boy at Plano Rep. Moreno's next job: directing A.R. Gurney's Far East at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas in February.

At a feel-good, PR-style luncheon where many of the guests are whispering on their cell phones, Dallas City Councilman Gary Griffith is not only listening intently to the speaker but actually making tiny little notes with a ball point pen on a small leather-backed notepad that he keeps pulling out and then redepositing in his breast pocket. It's typical of the quiet, behind-the-scenes intensity and thoughtfulness this freshman member of the council brings to the mission. Often unheralded, Griffith has helped the council pluck its way through several political spiderwebs already, including supplemental pay for injured cops, hiring a new police chief and countless neighborhood battles over streets and parks. So far he's been modest, cautious, smart and effective. Of course, he hasn't been sipping the Marilla Kool-Aid all that long. Let's try to get some more good out of him before they bring the refills.

Readers' Pick

John Loza

It happens at almost every play for which Randel Wright designs the set. The lights come up onstage, the audience gets its first look at his spectacular handiwork and everyone applauds. For A Girl's Guide to Chaos at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Wright filled the acting space with a ceiling-high tribute to the line drawings of the late pop artist Keith Haring, including Haring's signature crawling babies and barking dogs. For Lone Star/Laundry and Bourbon, also at CTD, Wright created an authentically shabby back porch and yard (complete with clothesline), then magically transformed it during intermission into a run-down West Texas honky-tonk lit by a gigantic rising full moon. The effect brought a satisfied "aaaaah" from the crowd. He's the only set designer successful at making the cave-like Bath House Cultural Center into an elegant acting space. For WingSpan's production of Edward Albee's Marriage Play, Wright incorporated the odd architectural elements of that venue into his rendering of a sprawling penthouse apartment. This designer definitely has a fine career building.

Uptown Players

Now in its third season of plays and musicals at the Trinity River Arts Center, the Uptown Players upped the ante this year with more ambitious work and higher-quality productions. This company, founded by co-producers Jeff Rane and Craig Lynch, performs gay-themed shows for a dedicated audience composed mostly of young gay theatergoers (everyone's welcome, of course). To their small stage they attract the best local talent--Denise Lee, Coy Covington, Nye Cooper, Regan Adair, Donald Fowler, BJ Cleveland--to casts of musicals such as Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Life and the cross-dressing comedies of Charles Busch (this year's Red Scare on Sunset was a winner). At least once a season they stage a sprawling, large-cast drama. The recent production of Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!, featuring more nudity than Dallas stages have seen in many a moon, played to sell-out crowds. Finishing out the current season is The Wild Party (through October 24). Next year's slate includes A Man of No Importance, Mambo Italiano, Southern Baptist Sissies and The Who's Tommy. Snaps all around!

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