BEST BAR PROTEST

Take that, Gov. Greg Abbott! After the governor issued a bar closure mandate for the second time, Chris Polone, owner of Fort Worth's The Rail Club Live, geared up to fight back. Instead of accepting yet another blow to his business, Polone opted to organize what he calls "the largest bar protest in Texas history," Freedom Fest. He said 797 bars registered to participate in the grandiose July event, during which they operated under stringent safety guidelines. It was a roaring success, Polone said, but the battle to reopen is far from over.

Drive-ins have made a solid comeback ever since the pandemic effectively shuttered concert venues. Fear not, live music-starved friends: Armadillo Ale Works in Denton has you covered. The craft brewery created the Last Ditch Drive-in Concert Series, a weekly local music show dedicated to infusing a pinch of normalcy into everyone's weekend. After purchasing tickets, fans park in a large lot where they can sip beers, take in tunes and eat phenomenal Latin street food from the neighboring restaurant, Boca 31. It's like one big, socially distanced tailgate party. What's not to love?

Everyone and their mom has a podcast these days, so it's hard to keep up even with just the local ones. But true crime comedy podcast Sinisterhood by Dallas comedians Heather McKinney and Christie Wallace hits all the high notes. Yes, it's possible to laugh at the same time as being scared shitless, a discovery made thanks to these ladies' ingenuity. Sinisterhood is so good it's made it on iTune's Top 10 U.S. comedy podcast list. Plus, lawyer McKinney helps break down the legalese behind complex cases, which helps a ton. Listen, if you dare.

BEST FUTURE COUNTRY ICON

This is the guy to watch, y'all. Joshua Ray Walker is an incomparable crooner who's well on his way to country legend status. His sophomore album, Glad You Made It, would make Townes Van Zandt proud. The Observer isn't the only outlet that recognizes Walker's gifts; Rolling Stone has also penned some favorable reviews of both his solo work and his band, Ottoman Turks. His guitar playing is top-notch, and he can hit all the high notes with perfect precision. Don't believe it? Listen to "Voices," the first song off his latest album.

BEST GALLERY

Ro2 Art always offers interesting exhibitions of contemporary art, but they have been a particular delight to art lovers during the pandemic, opening their virtual doors to those desperate to get back into gallery spaces. Summer 2020 saw their exhibitions From a Distance and My Corona with the first exclusively online and the second tentatively opening to real-life visits. Their exhibits do what art does best: respond to the outside world in a way that is all at once disturbing but also calming and reassuring. When we see art that is focused on the struggles of our lives, they can be painful reminders of what's actually going on, but they can also be comforting reminders that we are not alone in our suffering and that we have the opportunity to fight against it with our fellow sufferers.

Earlier this year, Dallas dancer Genea Sky became famous after she was filmed falling from a tall pole during her routine. From there, haters trolled her on the internet and derided fundraising efforts to help her pay for jaw surgery. Instead of letting them keep her down, though, Sky took the high road, even appearing on an episode of The Wendy Williams Show. During the segment, Williams gifted the former dancer with $10,000 to finish beauty school. Now, Sky has attracted upward of 200,000 followers on Instagram, where she posts clips from her work as an up-and-coming esthetician.

Ah, how innocent things were pre-pandemic. Remember when the former Affiliated Computer Services building suddenly became the archenemy of Italy's Leaning Tower of Pisa? Yeah, that was cool. In February, an 11-story office building in Dallas refused to fall after a failed demolition attempt. That caused the structure to lean and selfie-loving spectators to come flocking, turning it into a sort of second-rate tourist attraction. Eventually, the building was downed in a cloud of dust and debris, but oh, the memories will never fade.

A newcomer to Dallas, Kara-Lynn Vaeni had a fantastic season in DFW theater, which in spite of being sadly cut short by COVID, demonstrated her directing chops and established her as a welcome director in the area. In December 2019, she directed the brilliant and complex Noises Off! at Theatre Three. The play is uproariously funny but is only capable of being so in the hands of a strong director. Vaeni handled its intricacies well, ensuring that each joke led to knee-slapping and joyous tears. She followed this with The Children at Stage West, which opened in mid-March and hence closed after its first weekend because of the pandemic. The Children went on to be one of the first Dallas plays streamed online, and Vaeni's work gave online theater a strong first step.

BEST THEATER ACTOR

Sometimes, when we watch the work of a truly good actor, it seems impossible the actor could be in any way different from the character they are playing. When you see their face again in another work, it is sometimes shocking to see that they are in fact acting. They aren't merely walking and talking on a stage but are transforming themselves into different people. This year, Kelsey Milbourn exhibited just this dexterity as an actor, first in Undermain Theatre's The Thanksgiving Play and then in Stage West's Ada and the Engine. In the first, she played ditzy, self-obsessed and iPhone-obsessed actress Alicia with such conviction that it seemed only likely that Milbourn herself was that type of person (much as we would like to hope otherwise). And yet, two months later she transformed into Ada Lovelace, a 19th-century mathematician and the total opposite of her Thanksgiving Play character. Both performances were riveting but in completely different ways, demonstrating the breadth of Milbourn's talent.

There are many reasons we're impatiently waiting for the end of the pandemic. One of the bigger ones is going to bar trivia nights. The weekly trivia games that ran at Glass Half Full taproom in the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson were the most fun ways to feel really stupid on a Wednesday night. Geeks Who Drink host Eric Riggan presented rounds of cleverly worded questions with Jeopardy-grade contextual hints on subjects like geek pop culture and more challenging topics like the history of government agencies and insurance terminology. Riggan has the perfect temperament and voice for a grade-A game show host and a sense of humor and attitude. He puts the "master" in "quizmaster."

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