city slicker: Austin

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The Independent Culture
Austin, Texas, prides itself on being the "Live Music Capital of the World". That might sound a tad big-headed but this week, at least, that claim is beyond dispute as the city hosts the 10th annual South By Southwest (SXSW) Festival, probably the most influential contemporary music event in the USA

The festival: Five days, 40 stages, more than 600 artists from unsigned bands to international stars and an audience that includes 5,000 music business movers and shakers. That's what SXSW has to offer and a wristband costing just $40 gets you into all gigs. There's everything here from Austin's best country twangers to punk, and hardcore. British bands include Radiohead, Sleeper and Baby Bird.

The Austin music tradition: Austin hit it big in the early 1970s, when Willie Nelson and other disillusioned songwriters left Nashville and came here to hone the "outlaw country" sound. Since then the city has produced artists as varied as Steve Earle, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan (who is commemorated by a riverside statue, right); and the Butthole Surfers who have inspired dozens of other fine Austin-based guitar bands.

The street: In the shade of the State Capitol building, five blocks of East 6th Street hold every kind of nightspot, from country bars through college rock joints to techno clubs. At weekends, thousands of hard-drinking music fans wander from bar to bar and although some of the places are carpetbagging on the street's reputation, there are good ones like the indie-rocking Black-Cat and Steamboat, while Babe's Hamburgers puts on western swing veteran Don Walser for free every Monday.

The drag: This is the name given to the stretch of Guadalupe Street that runs alongside the 50,000-student University of Texas campus. Lined with bookstores, record shops and stalls selling hippy jewellery, it was where director Richard Linklater shot most of his 1991 cult movie Slacker.

The hotel: Austin boasts some fine hotels but the party-goers choice is the venerable Driskill at the end of the 6th Street strip.

Directly outside is the start of the Texas Walk of Stars, a series of plaques in the pavement dedicated to the likes of Willie Nelson and Janis Joplin. The main SXSW outdoor stage, where 10,000 fans get treated to free shows each night, is just outside the hotel entrance.

The big dinner: Threadgill's Restaurant goes down in Austin legend as the place where hillbilly fiddlers first jammed with freaks from the University of Texas (including Janis Joplin) in the early 1960s and kicked off the fusion of traditional and new music for which the city is famed. It still hosts a supper session each Wednesday night with the city's best country players. At other times this is the place to go for huge portions of quality downhome southern cooking. Unmissable.

The Honky Tonk Palace: Unchanged since the 1930s, this southside dance hall puts on the best country acts - the Derailers, Alvin Crow, Wayne Hancock - in town and also the best chicken-fried steak. Forget rhinestones, stetsons and other Nash trash as this place shure is real country, and any of ya'all wanting to start line-dancing, will get jeered out of the joint.

The Alternative Lounge: Way cool "Emo's Alternative Lounging" gets in the best touring punk, and alternative bands and charges a whole $2 to see them. They add to the insult by charging $1.50 for a pint of Samuel Adams. The clientele comes heavily tattooed and pierced, while hot local bands include Sixteen Deluxe, Sincola and Starfish. Other good alternative bars include the Electric Lounge and the Hole in the Wall.

The swimming pools: Barton Springs Pool, with its spring-fed waters is the most popular, while Hippy Hollow is the place to go for (legal) skinnydipping.

Austin Visitors Bureau, 201 E 2nd St, Austin, TX 78701.

Telephone 512 474 5171; fax 512 474 5182.

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