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SXSW for the uninitiated and unconnected

There are plenty of 'free and open to the public' options for those without a badge or wristband

Michael Corcoran
Zoe Butler, 16, pokes her head through the fence at Emo's to try to hear and see the bands playing inside during the SXSW Music Festival on Thursday March 19, 2009. "I can't get get in," said the disappointed Butler. "Too many people."

Kelly Goodrich is a 46-year-old single mom who goes to college and waits tables in Little Rock, Ark. She came down for South by Southwest from 1996 to 1998 and had a great time. So while her college is on spring break from March 15 to 21, she got a wild hair last month and decided to check out SXSW again.

All the downtown hotels were sold out, but Goodrich snared a room for her and a couple friends in a North Austin hotel, far from the action, but better than sleeping in the car.

But when she went online the day wristbands went on sale, Goodrich was "rather shocked and disappointed" to learn that she had to have an Austin ZIP code to buy them. "I would think that out-of-towners would be encouraged to attend, but I guess space is limited," she said.

SXSW was designed and is still staunchly maintained as an event for the music industry — labels, managers, booking agents, publicists, producers, media and the like — to see bands play live. Spring break was chosen as the week because most of the University of Texas students were headed to the beaches, leaving Sixth Street to musicians and the folks who could help their careers.

Ironically, college students from all over the country are now making SXSW their spring break party destination. The word is out that you don't need a badge ($550 and up) or wristband ($129 and up) to soak up more music, booze and food than you usually would be able to handle. SXSW is as free as you want to make it. Yee-haw!

Savvy fans go online and find out about parties and e-mail in their RSVPs, even if the closest they've been to the music biz was joining the Passion Pit street team. A lot of kids with no SXSW credentials got in to see an unannounced Kanye West set at the Levi's/Fader Fort last year because they knew to get there early.

But what if you're not hip? Is it possible to get your fill at SXSW if your most recent concert was the Duran Duran reunion tour a couple years back?

Worry not, ye barren of badges and wristbands and inside connections. You're not going to believe the buffet of sounds and amenities that await.

The magic words are "free and open to the public" (hereafter FOP). What townies bring is energy that jaded music biz types lost long ago, so party organizers like a sprinkle of true fans at their shindigs. Once a predominantly "invitation only" party scene is now pretty much open to everyone.

This was good news to Goodrich, who had planned to pay individual cover charges (when space is available) after wristbands were ruled out. Most clubs will charge a one-time admission, with no ins-and-outs (generally in the $10- $20 range), but because badges and wristbands have priority, Goodrich worried she'd be on the wrong side of the velvet rope every night.

A more realistic concern is making it to midnight after a full day of partying. Check out Austin360.com's exhaustive list (www.austin360.com/sxsw), of side party shows. It all can be a bit overwhelming.

Where's the party? Just go to where the music is coming from. Waterloo Records parking lot at Sixth Street and Lamar Boulevard has free shows every day from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. South by San José, in the parking lot of the Hotel San José, and Home Slice Pizza across the street both host four days of free fun. The Continental Club, Opal Divine's Penn Field, Amelia's, the Longbranch Inn, Jovita's, Scoot Inn and several more clubs are hosting free shows each day of SXSW music.

Goodrich won't recognize the SXSW of the '90s, when there were maybe two parties a day. But neither would she recognize Austin, which has grown right alongside the fest that made "the Live Music Capital of the World" motto stick. Walk down the Second Street of today and you'll almost flag down a cab to your hotel, forgetting that you're here.

Acts come to Austin from all over the world to get attention, but the fact above all is that Austin is always SXSW's biggest star. A convenient clubhopping paradise, with great March weather and hangover-friendly breakfast tacos, this city was an instant smash in 1987 when SXSW was launched. Growth was steady that first decade, but things started getting crazy about seven or eight years ago when such acts as the Strokes, White Stripes, Death Cab for Cutie, Black Eyed Peas and the Decemberists were discovered at SXSW and went on to sell millions.

Once "the music industry's greatest secret," the now internationally known SXSW has been blabbed about and endorsed by the likes of Perez Hilton and Rachael Ray. The cat's not only out of the bag, but if you swing one you'll hit a party sponsored by the Brooklyn Vegan music blog. If you don't see 20 bands a day, you're not trying.

Although SXSW organizers have long argued that all the side action dilutes and feeds off the official events that got the whole thing going in the first place, the peripheral scene has become uncontrollable. In recent years, SXSW has even gotten into the action, booking official day parties. If you can't beat 'em. . . .

But the biggest expansion has been east of Interstate 35. As the transformation of East Austin into an urban playground for Grizzly Bear fans continues, the land that SXSW once forgot will overflow with guys in beards and big sunglasses and hip chicks in short skirts and cowboy boots. That's right, it'll look like the sidewalk in front of Juan In a Million on Sunday morning, only it'll go on for blocks and blocks.

The 1000 blocks of East Fifth and East Sixth Streets will be especially crazy, with the Mess With Texas 4 fest and the Levi's/ Fader Fort going on simultaneously just a block apart. MWT4, in a parking lot on East Sixth, is free and open to the public. The Fader Fort is a party that requires an RSVP.

SXSW is for exposure (sleep is for the plane ride home) so most bands try to play as many day parties as they can. The focus is still on the 40-minute official set at night, but these vampire rockers aren't afraid of the sun. You just never know which guy or gal eating a quesadilla and drinking a Shiner Bock books a big festival in Sweden or is looking to sign bands for a new boutique label.

This "play 'em all" attitude has been a boon for Austin fans and those who come here from all over the world to fall in love with live music again. It's not who you know, it's knowing where to go, so we've assembled an hour-by-hour guide (see box, above) to THE places to be during the day.

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Plan your unofficial SXSW

Some suggested ‘free and open to the public' events to go to next during South by Southwest Music. Fair warning: Daytime party set times are subject to change, often without warning.

Wednesday

Noon: Freedy Johnston at Joe's Bar & Grill

1 p.m.: Drink Up Buttercup at Music Gym

2 p.m.: Vandaveer at Creekside Lounge

3 p.m.: Cocktail Slippers at Maria's Taco Xpress

4 p.m.: Surfer Blood at Waterloo Records

5 p.m.: Steve Poltz at Joe's Bar & Grill

6 p.m.: BP Fallon at the Austin Fleah

Thursday

Noon: Texas Sapphires at Creekside Lounge

1 p.m.: Califone at French Legation

2:15 p.m.: Kid Sister at 1001 E. Sixth St. (Ultra8201 party)

3:30 p.m.: Mother Truckers at the Continental Club

4 p.m.: Hounds Below at Uncorked

5 p.m.: Solid Gold at Maggie Mae's

6:45 p.m.: Bright Light Social Hour at Home Slice

Friday

Noon: A Giant Dog at Home Slice Pizza

1 p.m.: John Hiatt at Waterloo Records

2 p.m.: Shearwater at Waterloo Records

3 p.m.: Justin Townes Earle at Yard Dog

4 p.m.: ... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead at the Independent

5 p.m.: Movits at Home Slice

6 p.m.: BellRays at Cheapo's

Saturday

Noon: the Mighty Stef at the Continental Club

1 p.m.: Besnard Lakes at the Galaxy Room

2 p.m.: Sahara Smith at Hotel San José

3 p.m.: The Gourds at the Dog & Duck Pub

4 p.m.: Sondre Lerche at Klub Krucial

5 p.m.: the Low Anthem at Hotel San José

6 p.m.: Jones Family Singers at Hotel San José

Guide to venues/events listed:

Austin Fleah, 216 E. Fourth St.

Cheapo's, 914 N. Lamar Blvd.

Continental Club, 1315 S. Congress Ave.

Creekside Lounge, 606 E. Seventh St.

Dog & Duck Pub, 406 W. 17th St.

French Legation, 802 San Marcos St.

Galaxy Room, 507 E. Sixth St.

Home Slice Pizza, 1415 S. Congress Ave.

Hotel San José, 1316 S. Congress Ave.

The Independent, 501 I-35

Joe's Bar & Grill, 506 West Ave.

Klub Krucial, 614 E. Sixth St.

Maggie Mae's, 323 E. Sixth St.

Maria's Taco Xpress, 2529 S. Lamar Blvd.

Music Gym, 815 E. Sixth St.

Spiderhouse, 500 W. 29th St.

Uncorked, 900 E. Seventh St.

Waterloo Records, 600 N. Lamar Blvd.

Yard Dog, 1510 South Congress Ave.