The mega-size International Festival is held annually over two weekends in April. From mariachis to Hugh Masekela, if it's music, it's there. Ten stages feature music from around the world — and some from around the neighborhood — and include Latin music, world music, pop, blues, country and jazz. The festival draws names big and small. This year's nationally known performers included Buddy Guy, The Neville Brothers, Grupo Fantasma, Shemekia Copeland, Bettye Lavette, and The Wailers. Local artists included Little Joe Washington and Earl Gilliam, Karina Nistal, and Leo Polk. Best yet, free Friday lunchtime concerts kicked off each weekend, with groups such as the Zydeco Dots, National Dance Theater of Ethiopia and D.R.U.M.

Alley Theatre

Okay, we admit it, one of the best things about Love, Janis was that the show about the life and times of Janis Joplin, the Texas queen of rock, was so, well, unmusical-like. The setup was simple: Two actors played Joplin. One sang the great singer's amazing songs while the other told her story in simple epistolary monologues. Tunes like "Me and Bobby McGee," "Piece of My Heart" and "Ball and Chain" brought down the house, just like they did back in the old days when Joplin was alive. And the singer's story about fame, the fast life and the large-living lure of heroine and alcohol was American mythmaking at its very best.

Pearl Lounge

Yes, we know we gave them this award last year. But Pearl Bar has undergone major renovations since 2007, and you might say, well, it's like a whole new bar. The place that started as an open-every-now-and-then patio bar is now up and running both indoors and out. The inside makes it hard to believe the building once hosted some of the dirtiest bands around town when it was Mary Jane's Fat Cat. The ­latest decor screams Midtown, but the bartenders maintain the old-­Washington vibes. On any given night you'll find a mix of dolled-up singles looking for a new mate and drabby-dressed friends meeting up to play cards, shuffleboard or ping-pong.

Boondocks

When Boondocks celebrated its first anniversary in July, it was kind of a shock. Somehow, it seemed that the split-level bar had been around a lot longer. But in that short time, Boondocks has evolved into an impressive cross-section of the Houston music scene. Its DJ nights feature everything from '60s rock (Reverberations) and hard rock (Hell's Bells) to deep soul, funk and R&B (Dirty Honey) and old-school hip-hop and electro (Shake & Pop). If live music is more your thing, Houston guitar legend Little Joe Washington will blow your mind on Tuesday nights, and Monday's Boondocks Live shows feature a who's who of up-and-coming and established local bands (and $2 Lone Stars). Throw in periodic road shows and free5 p.m. barbecues every Sunday, and we hope Boondocks is just getting started. It certainly seems that way.

ArtStorm

Artstorm took the city by, well, storm. Houston was hit with a wealth of paintings, sculpture, photography and more from some of the city's and the country's most exciting up-and-coming artists. This is thanks to the brainchildren behind the gallery — a mix of young artists and art enthusiasts who are quickly steering Artstorm toward the epicenter of all-things-hip in Houston. The gallery's openings are a crossroad where area artists, writers, musicians and see-and-be-seeners meet to mix and mingle. Artstorm has proven to be the latest place to feel the pulse of local culture — an atmosphere full of mutual admiration and potential collaborations à la '70s New York.

Created by Catastrophic Theatre company member (and Houston Press contributor) Troy Schulze, The Splasher focuses on a real-life guy who ran around New York City vandalizing graffiti as a political statement against art. The Splasher hated the fact that when the artists moved into any neighborhood and made their presence known with upscale graffiti that would cost thousands hanging in a gallery, gentrification was sure to follow. Schulze says that he was fascinated when the story came out in The New York Times. He calls his play a "meditation on art [and] crime." Made up of newspaper interviews, bits of sound and music, video projection and original dialogue, the politically powerful production at DiverseWorks was smart, funny and, best of all, satisfyingly strange.

El Pueblito Place
Jeff Balke

Gotta be honest: Last time we went to El Pueblito, they only had one credit-card machine, which meant we had to wait a fortnight for them to run the cards for a large party who closed out ahead of us. Essentially, we were hostages. But what a damn fine patio to be a hostage on! When you're on that patio, you almost feel like you're in another country — some lush tropical environ where there's no construction or congestion. There are cabanas for intimate dinners, and the little lights strung around the palm trees make dining at night especially memorable. Just remember that you might want to consider paying in cash.

The Mink

"Performance space" feels a little highfalutin to describe the Mink's Backroom — it's a venue, plain and simple — except for a couple of points. First of all, there's no stage per se; bands just set up at one end of the rectangular upstairs room. Second, no other place in town programs such an even mixture of DJs and live performers, and the Backroom just happens to be an excellent listening room that can double as a great dance floor. Either way, its warm wood floors both cushion and burnish the sound, giving the impression of a much bigger room; service at the fully-stocked upstairs bar is friendly and efficient; and there are plenty of comfortable chairs in the back if you need to take a load off for a while. Add an adventurous mix of local and national indie-rock, experimental music and underground hip-hop, and maybe it does merit such lofty categorization. Just be warned: At shows like last winter's "Hootenanny" all-covers extravaganza, this "performance space" can get crowded. Extremely.

Taurian's employees don't poke around with any other body matters — they stick to piercing. This means customers can have their ears, eyebrows, nipples, bellybuttons and anything below the belt holed in an establishment where safety and knowledge of the procedure come first. (The place looks and smells like it's sanitized every hour.) The piercers are helpful before and after pokin' ya, offering advice for placement, jewelry and proper hygiene. If you follow their advice, it's unlikely you'll have any problems, but if that piercing starts to get a little sore or red, don't hesitate to call or head up to the shop. The staff will help you find a solution — too often, the other guys' best advice is "take it out" or "come see us next time you're jonesin' for a hole in your body."

Outside of Katz's Deli, taquerias with breakfast menus and Mary's, spots to get your a.m. drink on are few and far between. Those who want or need to get primed before that 10 o'clock sales meeting without the distraction of families eating migas or perhaps overly amorous patrons are S.O.L., unless they're fortunate enough to live near the Red Hog. Whether your approach to the office takes you down Long Point or Hempstead Road, this tavern in a former hot-sheet motel with Arkansas-themed decor has you covered. Six days a week, they open up at 8 a.m. for you red-eye imbibers. Let the rest of the world worry about spilling hot coffee in its collective lap — you just get your butt down to the Red Hog for a couple of cold ones. Bonus: They also serve booze-masking breakfast tacos — so your eye-openers can stay our little secret.

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