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While some locals flee SXSW, these Austinites love it

Pat Beach

A fair number of years ago, Sound Exchange, the record store on the Drag that's been closed since the early 2000s, put up a fairly un-Texas friendly message for the black-clad hordes that descend on Shangri-La-on-the-Colorado every March. Something like, "Go back downtown. South By So What isn't here."

True, the annual music conference - and its younger siblings focusing on film and interactive - draw thousands of people from all over the world. But there's always been a turgid undercurrent of resentment on the part of some locals who dread the time when parking is even more impossible, waits for tables even longer, clubs packed with still more humanity.

Guess what? This story's not about them. Some locals love SXSW. They go every year, grabbing a wristband and/or taking in day parties, studying the grids, making notes, taking pictures and having a great time. To the haters they say: Lose the sneer. People in leather pants with expense accounts aside, this is pretty cool - even as the conference and Austin around it have vastly changed.

"In the early times, we'd have friends come from out of town and it was real sort of pride of Austin-hood of being able to charge around and show off the town and in fact those early ones tended to be a lot more Texas music and Austin bands," said author John Taliaferro, who's at work on a biography of Abraham Lincoln's secretary John Hay and has been attending SXSW since about 1992. "That was back in the days when wristbands were cheaper and easy to get. ... The last three years I haven't even bothered to get a wristband and have still had a great time because of all the free stuff. I'm a big lover of world music. Sometimes I've spent two nights at Copa (Bar & Grill). So for $10 you can see five great bands."

During the years Taliaferro has drifted from treating SXSW as a military exercise to a day spent fishing. You know sometimes you might get lucky, other times you won't.

"You realize there are lucky years and not-so-lucky years," said the scribe, who added he still makes notes on index cards and puts them in his pocket for reference during the slog. "You don't hit it out of the park all the time but you know there will be other nights and other shows. So I sort of take the long view of it. And I see stuff during the day. Without having a plan, it works out pretty well."

Taliaferro says the majority of his Austin friends have "never engaged with SXSW," preferring to go to the more fan-friendly Austin City Limits Music Festival. But he doesn't do big crowds.

Nurse practitioner and confessed "wannabe rock 'n' roll photographer" Lynne Berdofe also has adopted a more go-with-the-flow approach.

"In years past, I had my own schedule mapped out," she said. "`OK, 10 minutes before so and so is over I need to go somewhere else.' There's nothing like spending $120 for a wristband and seeing so many acts. And the hype, the excitement, the atmosphere when they close off downtown and everybody's out there having a great time. It's like an escape for me."

The last couple of years Berdofe has pretty much done day events such as the KGSR concerts outside the Four Seasons, but she has some cherished memories from past SXSWs, including being up front for Billy Idol at Stubb's. Idol made eye contact with her and asked what time it was.

"I said, `TIME TO ROCK!' and he said, `No, what time is it?' "

For her trouble the star handed Berdofe a drumstick with "abused by Billy Idol" written on it.

For Grant Alvis, as for a lot of Austinites, SXSW is a chance to revisit his youthful days, before marriage and kids.

"I don't get out much anymore. So ACL and SXSW are just this orgy of music I can indulge myself in and get a pass from my familial responsibilities," said Alvis, who works at IBM. "And it's turned into more of a social occasion. My friend from Pittsburgh comes down every year. Now there's six or seven of us working to chart our way through the maze of acts through the four days. My friend from Pittsburgh is a serious fan. He's one of these guys who buys a hundred albums a year. He does a lot of the legwork and I ride his coattails to some extent."

Alvis' friends have badges and he rocks a wristband, meaning a little planning is a must.

"You have to," he said. "We have a course charted before we go out. We have a game plan two or three deep so we can recover if the band isn't tolerable or we can't get in. And we have a two-song limit."

British ex-pat Lydia Hopper has friends who come from the U.K. specifically for SXSW. For her it's a chance to see a huge volume of music and show off her town.

"I really like that the venues are small so the performances are intimate," Hopper said. "And there's a broad range of music. A lot of festivals it's just one type. And because it's all downtown you can bar hop, basically, and see a lot of performances. And just the fact that it's in a city. ACL is in a field. Actually being in local venues is cool. You get the feel of the city."

For Michael Mullen and his wife, Katy O'Neill, the event is a chance to get away from a sometimes-consuming veterinary practice.

"SXSW actually is the only vacation at home we can manage," O'Neill said. "It comes to us."

Mullen and O'Neill value seeing acts they wouldn't ordinarily make a point of seeing - Tony Bennett, Kathy Mattea - as well as serendipity.

"One night we wanted to get into R.E.M. and the line was too long so we went across the street and saw Martha Wainright and had a great time," O'Neill said. "And then we saw the last of R.E.M. Although you can't control the whole thing, if you stay flexible, you have a much more unpredictable experience."

And speaking of unpredictable experiences, sometimes it's not all about the music. A few years back Mullen and O'Neill were at Cedar Street waiting for Billy Bragg. Hunger struck, and they knew the badge line was going to be formidable if they left and tried to return. They asked the doorman, "If we bring you food will you let us back in?" and got an indifferent response. They walked to Manuel's, got nachos to go and schlepped back to the club with their offering. It worked. They cut ahead, much to a badge-holder's annoyance.

As O'Neill recalled, the bouncer told the badge-holder, "Man, nachos and a wristband trumps a badge every time."

Taliaferro also has a story about the ability of food to shorten a line. Years ago he was with his niece trying to get into Emo's for somebody or other. He'd just bought a couple of hot dogs from a street vendor and offered one to a guy who looked homeless. And then this happened:

"He said, `Would you like to get into this show? Follow me.' The line of badge-holders was waiting and (Austin Chronicle editor and SXSW co-founder) Louis Black was standing at the door. And this guy, I don't know what his juju was, he said to Louis, `Hi, we're here,' and with his body language, we walked right past him. He was my badge for that show."

See? It's possible to live in Austin and have fun at SXSW. Moments like that are what makes Berdofe say, "Bring it on. I'm ready for another."