A look back at SXSW 2011

By Chris M. Junior

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the South by Southwest music conference/festival. And just like in previous editions, SXSW 2011 offered plenty to see and hear all over Austin, Texas.

Matt Nathanson is shown during his performance at ACL Live at the Moody Theater on March 16. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Dennen, Nathanson turn up the volume

They’re from California and best known for gentle, acoustic-based songs, so having singer/songwriters Brett Dennen and Matt Nathanson on the same SXSW bill seemed like a case of sensible scheduling.

What made the March 16 showcase even more appropriate was that Dennen and Nathanson both came armed with electric guitars, which they used to offer glimpses at their more muscular new material.

The lanky Dennen had the first slot at ACL Live at the Moody Theater. Backed by a bassist and drummer, Dennen showed that he’s much more than a steady strummer and delicate picker, emphasizing his slashing rhythm work and brief, melodic leads in his first three songs. After that, he switched to an acoustic guitar yet kept the pace upbeat. The audience didn’t seem to mind that Dennen bypassed such signature songs as “San Francisco” and “Make You Crazy” to focus on “Sydney (I’ll Come Running)” and other material from his new album, “Loverboy,” due April 12 on the Dualtone label.

Unlike Dennen, Nathanson found space for two of his signature songs, “Car Crash” and “Come on Get Higher.” But he was also in Austin to test out songs, as well as break in his new band. “Modern Love,” Nathanson’s new album, is due in June; the title track (one of the highlights of his set) is not a cover of the David Bowie tune, but it’s just as radio friendly.

Nathanson has been known to bridge the gaps between songs with doses of comedy, and on this night, he made some blue comments about the Natalie Portman film “Black Swan.” Those jokes and others went over well, and so did the cover of “I Fought the Law” (more Clash-like than Bobby Fuller Four) that closed his set.

Following his band’s SXSW interview with John Norris on March 17, Duran Duran singer Simon LeBon taped an AOL Music segment at the Austin Convention Center. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Duran Duran is living in the ‘Now’

Duran Duran fans still hoping guitarist Andy Taylor will once again return to the lineup should forget about it.

During the band’s SXSW interview March 17 with John Norris, singer Simon LeBon stated that Taylor has “a dark side” that makes it difficult to work with him. And drummer Roger Taylor likened the guitarist’s departure to when a star player leaves a sports team – those who remain pick up the pieces and move forward.

LeBon, Roger Taylor, bassist John Taylor and keyboardist Nick Rhodes really like the path they’ve followed with the Mark Ronson-produced “All You Need Is Now,” the second album since Andy Taylor’s second departure. Duran Duran has already made a video for the title track, and Rhodes said there are plans to make videos for other songs.

That inevitably led to some comments about MTV and its glory days as a video music channel. Rhodes recalled when MTV was “much more loose” and aired “true maverick TV programming” before succumbing to a play list, while John Taylor said he constantly meets people who say their lives were changed by MTV’s early years.

McLagan on the move

Ian McLagan was a steady presence at the Austin Convention Center, the headquarters for SXSW panels.

On March 17, McLagan was spotted on the fourth floor and asked how he was doing. As he fixed his coffee, the witty keyboardist responded with a line borrowed from one of his former Faces band mates.

“Like Ronnie Lane used to say, ‘Up and down like a pair of trousers,’” McLagan said with a smile.

That day, McLagan was scheduled to participate in the panel This Is Mod: How British Mod Culture Changed the World. He was also a scheduled panelist for And on Piano … Nicky Hopkins, which was held March 19.

Sarah McIntosh of The Good Natured in action. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Front and center

Maybe it’s the water. Or maybe there’s another reason why England tends to produce some of the best frontmen (and frontwomen) in rock and pop.

Two newbies made great first impressions during SXSW 2011.

Leggy singer Sarah McIntosh, 20, who fronts the electronica/pop trio The Good Natured, strutted her stuff March 18 at the out-of-the-way venue called The Windish Agency House @ ND. McIntosh worked the stage as well as the floor, joining the crowd on multiple occasions and going about as far as her microphone cable would allow. “Be My Animal,” The Good Natured’s debut EP, is available now through iTunes.

When A Silent Film singer Robert Stevenson wasn’t playing his piano, he was bouncing all over the Rusty Spurs stage on March 19 as if the club were the Frank Erwin Center, Austin’s arena. There’s an anthemic, U2-like quality to A Silent Film’s music, particularly “You Will Leave a Mark,” which is on the band’s debut album, “The City That Sleeps.”

Sahara Smith performs March 19 as part of the Austin Music Awards, which were held at Austin Music Hall. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Spotlight on Sahara Smith

SXSW does many things well, among them showcasing a wide variety of Austin-area talent.

Sahara Smith, who was born in Austin and raised in nearby Wimberley, had one of the busier schedules of any SXSW 2011 act. That made her performance at the Austin Music Hall as part of the Austin Music Awards on March 19 — the last full day of SXSW shows — even more impressive. Smith (who collected three honors that night, among them best songwriter) was engaging and in fine voice, especially on “The Real Thing” and “Are You Lonely.” Her debut album, “Myth of the Heart,” was released in 2010 on Playing in Traffic Records.

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