Cheap By Damn Cheap

Austin likes to think of itself as the Live Music Capital of the World, an unctuous bit of hyperbole if ever there was one. But this weekend, during the South By Southwest Music Festival, the silly slogan -- also used by Branson, Missouri -- may actually be true.

With nearly 50 venues presenting hundreds of musical artists, SXSW is a banquet for music fans -- but it's a banquet at a four-star, five-dollar-sign restaurant. First priority for admission to the hottest shows goes to those attending the SXSW Music & Media Conference, and a badge for the conference, which begins March 13, costs $550. Wristbands for the festival, granting second priority, cost $105, can be bought only in Austin and may well be sold out by the time you read this.

But you don't need to shell out big bucks to hear lots of music in the Capital City this weekend. In fact, you can do so without dropping one red cent on a festival wristband or cover charges (generally $10 for individual shows). In and around SXSW are numerous shows that don't cost a thing. SXSW 2002 appears to be in as much of a downturn as the industry in general, so the free concerts aren't nearly as enticing as in years past, which saw everyone from Robert Earl Keen to Iggy Pop take the stage. This year the freebies are at Auditorium Shores on Town Lake just across the Colorado River from downtown, for decades the site of many Austin musical events and a lovely spot for an outdoor concert. Thursday the bill is a Tejano music lineup topped by H-town's La Mafia. Friday evening Bowling For Soup, Local H and Vallejo appear, and on Saturday the fare includes such varied roots music acts as Split Lip Rayfield, Alejandro Escovedo, Geno Delafose and the Gourds.

For the canny visitor, these shows can be just the tip of the free-music iceberg. Since SXSW is an event where promotion to the press and industry is the primary thrust, loads of events have sprung up around it, especially in the afternoons when acts playing evening showcases may also turn up.

Ground zero for this unofficial festival is South Congress Avenue, which from Thursday through Saturday verges on a street carnival. One of the longest- running affairs is the party behind the Yard Dog folk art gallery featuring acts in the mongrel Americana genre and, often, free beer and food. Just down the street at Jo's Coffee Shop and the Hotel San Jose, more acts play the parking lots. Across the street, where Under The Sun is becoming Texas Café, Americana acts play every afternoon. And on Saturday Mojo Nixon hosts and plays an afternoon bash at the original Continental Club. Houston's Allen Oldies Band traditionally sets up on the street outside Rue's Antiques to regale passersby.

The nearby Mexican cantina Jovita's on South First Street also has hosted free afternoon parties and shows, as has Maria's Taco Xpress over on South Lamar. The Saxon Pub on Lamar usually holds a Saturday-afternoon mini-festival in its parking lot.

One of the most delightful shows is the annual bash hosted by the Cornell Hurd Band at Texicalli Grille on East Oltorf in South Austin. Beginning in the late morning, it features a host of guest singers and players from the local, regional and even national country and roots music scenes.

Austin's record stores go crazy with in-store appearances. Waterloo Records and Cheapo Records on North Lamar and, in the university area, Tower Records, Sound Exchange, Thirty-Three Degrees and Jupiter Records fill their days with acts playing to tout themselves. Some of the stores offer free beer to sweeten the deal.

Details on many of the free shows and in-stores can be found in the weekly Austin Chronicle and sometimes in the Austin American-Statesman's Thursday entertainment supplement. Third Coast Music magazine prints an annual and fairly comprehensive "Not SXSW" guide; copies of the freebie mag usually can be picked up at Jo's and Guero's Taco Bar on South Congress as well as in record stores. This year someone was even nice enough to put up a Web site, www.southbysowhat.org, that boasts a comprehensive schedule of non-SXSW shows with a map of locales, no less.

If you're really crafty and determined, you might be able to slip into some of the afternoon drink-and-grub parties held by record labels and magazines. For music scribes, SXSW is an endless round of buffets and keg beer blasts. Look for the badges hanging around the necks of SXSW conference attendees and ask them where the good parties are. In years past, the Statesman even ran a SXSW column called "Party Crasher," where a writer sans credentials slipped into all sorts of "closed events."

At night, wander downtown, and you'll find musicians playing on the street and non-SXSW venues hosting acts with no cover charge. After all, during SXSW, musicians are dying to be heard, if not discovered. With a bit of research and inquiry, you can fill your entire weekend with music, food and drink without ever opening your wallet. Consider it a challenge.

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Rob Patterson