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Your A-to-Z Guide to SXSW: The Best Music, Venues, Food and More

With the annual Austin music extravaganza getting underway today, we're breaking it down to the best places to eat, sleep, listen and watch.

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Your A-to-Z Guide to SXSW: The Best Music, Venues, Food and More

It’s that time of the year again, when a massive chunk of the music industry descends upon Austin for the annual SXSW festival. Say what you will about the increasingly corporate vibe of the fest, SXSW is still the country’s best festival for showcasing new and buzzing talent. And while the fest has evolved into an all-encompassing media extravaganza featuring film, comedy and interactive programming, SXSW Music (which runs this year from March 12 through March 18) is still the main event.

Enter our A-to-Z guide. Whether you’re a first-timer or a regular, consider this guide a tool for the week ahead. Use it to discover notable bands playing the fest, venues to know, food to eat, drinks to consume and an overall look at the lay of the land for one of the most fantastically engaging and exhausting weeks of your life. (Also, note that this guide does not address keynotes, panels and speakers; those can all be further investigated here.)

So put on your cowboy hats….actually, don’t do that. Just sit back and check it:

A: August Greene
A most excellent new supergroup featuring Common on the mic, Robert Glasper on the keys and Karriem Riggins on the drums. It’s incredibly jazzy hip-hop with a political slant that feels immediate. They’ll be debuting their live set with sporadic shows at SXSW, including headlining NPR Music’s showcase at Stubb’s on Wednesday. Check out “Black Kennedy”:

B: Brisket and BBQ
Mark it down: The best BBQ in the world is in Austin. And in this town, smoked brisket is king. You can stand in line at Franklin BBQ in the early morning for a taste of Aaron Franklin’s legendary brisket, or you can make a pro move and take a car to North Austin and hit up Stiles Switch BBQ. Stiles Switch is housed in the building that played the Emporium in Dazed & Confused. And while their moist brisket is the best I’ve ever had, no word on whether Wooderson, Slater and Randall “Pink” Floyd will be hanging out in the front.

C: Collide on Rainey
Culture Collide takes over Rainey Street’s best venues each year. This year, Collide is set to present showcases at six different spots, featuring more than 100 bands in total. With its renovated houses-turned-bungalow bars, Rainey Street is its own ecosystem in relation to downtown and worth a stop at least once during SXSW.

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D: Lucy Dacus
Dacus is buzzing hard on the strength of her acclaimed sophomore release, Historian, out now on Matador Records. (Read Paste’s review here.) She’s firmly at the top of our list of acts to catch in Austin this week. Check her SXSW schedule here and listen to her Daytrotter session from 2016 below.

E: East Side
As downtown Austin has developed into a major metropolitan hub, East Austin has gradually become the place to go for that old Austin vibe. Don’t stay confined to bustling downtown when you’re at SXSW—walk down 6th below I-35 into East Austin for a slew of venues (including the Hotel Vegas, the North Door, and Sahara Lounge), events, and some of the best food in the city.

F: Fader Fort
You’ve gotta hand it to Fader Fort: It’s been the hub for some of the most iconic hip-hop moments at SXSW for years now. OVO Sound’s 2016 showcase saw dvsn performing for the first time ever and Drake surprise headlining. The lineups are generally well-rounded beyond just hip-hop, too, and this year’s Fort features Soccer Mommy, Kelela and SOB x RBE, among others at a new location on 1501 East 7th St.

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G: Grackles
Those damn birds! They sorta look like crows, but these little bastards are far more sinister. You’ll find Grackles swarm around Austin, scheming in the trees, cackling loudly and hoping to snag your breakfast tacos when you turn your head. Be on alert, or feel free to imagine yourself in a Hitchcock film. They’re an indelible part of the SXSW soundtrack.

H: Hotel Vegas
What a venue! Located in East Austin at 1502 E. 6th St., Hotel Vegas is a screamer of a spot to spend an evening when you don’t have a particular showcase in mind. There are what seems like a half dozen+ different stages, both outdoors and inside of the labyrinthian bar. Peep their full SXSW schedule here and we highly recommend the Levitation Day & Night Parties on the 15th (Hinds, Sunflower Bean, Goat Girl, etc.)

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(Courtesy Hotel Vegas)

I: Irene’s
Definitely a place you’ll want to eat and drink while at SXSW. On the downtown outskirts (5th Street and West), Irene’s also has a counter window for quick coffee, or an all-day breakfast sando. Settle at a table inside and order a “Painkiller” cocktail. Trust us.

J: Jester King
A short drive outside of downtown lies the Jester King Ranch, home of the best craft brewery in the entire state of Texas (quote me). It’s a marvelous site with multiple beer gardens and brick-oven pizza to pair with Jester King’s epic brews.

K: Kemba
We featured the Bronx rapper as one of our Best of What’s Next artists last year. He told us back then that he could “see the beginnings of what I’ve always wanted to happen…” And now he’s headed to Austin to build on that. Kemba is set to perform at Empire Control room on the Thursday. Check out his SXSW schedule here, and his mesmerizing new video for “Hallelujah”:

L: Lone Star
Unofficially the official beer of Austin. They’re cheap, they’re cold, and they’re better than PBR. A sip of a Lone Star is a taste of Austin in its finest form.

M: Madison McFerrin
Add another talented McFerrin to your radar with Madison (along with her father Bobby and brother Taylor.) The Brooklyn soul singer is on the come-up and creates beautiful compositions like organically rhythmic “Insane” below. Last month she released her second EP, Finding Foundations: Vol. II. See her official showcase schedule here.

N: Nombe
Noah McBeth is on the verge of releasing his breakthrough debut, They Might’ve Even Loved Me, out March 23 on Th3rd Brain Records, and the German-born, L.A.-based pop-rock shredder will be making a couple appearances at SXSW this week. Dude has released a single every month for 12 straight months, and the album promises to be nothing short of a triumphant. Here’s his SXSW showcase schedule.

O: Ought
Ought’s third album, Room Inside the World, is out now on Merge and it’s another quality record from the tightly-wound Canadian quartet. Their post-punk fused with industrial rock vibes are guided by singer Tim Darcy’s Morrissey-like vocals. Ought have officially arrived—in Austin. Here’s where to see them.

P: Pedicabs
Yeah, they can get a little pricey (always negotiate a price ahead of time with your biker), but a Pedicab ride through downtown is an Austin rite of passage—and often the best way to get from one venue to the next. There’s nothing like resting your weary bones from a day of traversing the festival like springing for one of these. (A two-person ride from downtown to the heart of East Austin will probably cost you $20. Within downtown, use $5 per-person per-ride as a benchmark and be firm when negotiating! The pedalers can be tough, but they work hard.

Q: Queso
Speaking of an Austin rite of passage, a daily helping of Queso is a sinfully delicious way to stay happy. The Tex-Mex staple, made with melted cheese and chile peppers, can be found at what seems like every restaurant or taco shack in town. And if you do SXSW right, this stuff will be competing with Lone Star beer to co-opt your veins before the week is over. Godspeed.

R: RSVP
It’s never too late to RSVP to the parties and showcases you want to see, and oftentimes, it’s the only way to get in. You can do SXSW and have a blast without getting a music badge or wristband, but your RSVP game better be strong. Our advice? RSVP to everything you think you might want to hit up and then make decisions on the fly. Feeling lazy? Subscribe to a service like RSVPster, which does the dirty work for you. Just kiss the sanctity of your inbox goodbye when the marketing e-mails start arriving after the festival.

S: Soccer Mommy
Sophie Allison’s Soccer Mommy project seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue after the release of her debut LP, Clean, on Fat Possum Records. Clean is the best bedroom pop project to emerge since Jay Som’s Everybody Works. Check out our Best of What’s Next feature on Soccer Mommy here and watch her perform last month at the Paste Studio in New York below. Here’s her SXSW schedule.

T: Tacos
Street tacos, breakfast tacos, brisket tacos, Korean tacos, all of the tacos. It’s a way of life at SXSW, especially when you’re on the go and can’t fathom actually sitting down for a meal. The breakfast taco, specifically, is one of Texas’s finest exports. Go to Torchy’s Tacos on South Congress for what may be Austin’s most well-known offerings, or hit up Tamale House on the East Side for an under-the-radar breakfast gem.

U: Unofficial vs. Official
It’s important to know the distinction between Official and Unofficial SXSW showcases. Official showcases are listed on the SXSW website and require a badge or wristband to get in. The unofficial showcase variety isn’t technically affiliated with the festival’s governing body, so it won’t be listed on the website. The latter is where you can RSVP to get in, but know that many desirable shows are official and you’ll have to badge up to attend.

V: No Vacation
The San Francisco-cum-NYC Topshelf Records band positively merits your attention. Last November’s Intermission EP was one of the most slept-on releases of the year, and they’ve got three official showcases on the books at SXSW. We dare you to not fall in love after listening to “Mind Fields”. Here’s their showcase schedule.

W: Waterloo Records
One of the great surviving record stores anywhere, Waterloo is the place to go for wristband pickups and to find releases by just about any band you’re likely to see at SXSW. As usual, the store will also be hosting all-ages day parties with no fewer than 25 great artists between Wednesday and Saturday, including Lucy Dacus, Andrew W.K., Shamir, Speedy Ortiz, and And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. Doubling up on the “W”: Right across the street is the original Whole Foods Market, for that extra basic Instagram post, or if you need a big-ass bottle of electrolyte water (it’s hot as hell in Texas, maybe you’ve heard?).

X: Xpresso
OK, we took a liberty with the letters here, but espresso is suuuper hard to find in downtown Austin. And when you’re out and about all day for 4+ days straight, concentrated coffee is your best friend. You can find a Starbucks in a hotel, or your best best is likely Halcyon Cafe on Lavaca and 4th Street (the lines can be long in the morning), or the aforementioned window at Irene’s.

Y: Yellowbird
Easily the best hot sauce to lather up on your breakfast tacos. Accept no substitutes.

Z: Zilker Park
Once you’re done with SXSW, you can start looking toward another of Austin’s storied festivals, Austin City Limits (ACL). ACL has taken place at Zilker Park since its inception in 2002 and goes down in two consecutive weekends in October.

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