Looking back at South by Southwest 2021

A recap of choice programming from the first virtual edition of the long-running music festival and conference.
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Maybe it was the Austin Chronicle. Or perhaps it was KUTX-FM’s Jody Denberg.

Then again, giving proper credit to the source of the phrase Couch by Couchwest, used by the Chronicle and Denberg (and likely many others) to describe the all-online, pandemic-era edition of South by Southwest, doesn’t really matter. The nickname was fitting (and admittedly funny), yet in no way should it be interpreted as flippant. Sure, nothing beats actually being in Austin, Texas, in mid-March to experience all that SXSW has to offer, but a streamlined, virtual edition — much fewer offerings (to be expected), shorter showcases and sessions (not necessarily a bad thing) — was a welcome, worthwhile experience a year after the first cancellation in the history of the longtime festival-conference.

Here’s a recap of select programming from SXSW 2021, aka SXSW Online.

THE FUTURE OF CONCERTS AND MUSIC COMMERCE

After a year in which artists pivoted to livestream performances to stay engaged with fans and generate some sort of income during the pandemic, it made sense for SXSW to present panels about how musicians and fans will interact and do business moving forward.

Left to right: SaveLive founder Marc Geiger and Sessions founder Tim Westergren

Left to right: SaveLive founder Marc Geiger and Sessions founder Tim Westergren

Tim Westergren, a co-founder of Pandora who launched the concert livestreaming platform Sessions last year, and Marc Geiger, a former WME executive and the founder of the national live venue network SaveLive, covered a lot of ground related to those issues in their nearly 25-minute session “The Way Forward for Artists,” presented March 16.

The way Westergren sees it, there are “two real hazards” facing artists. One is that they don’t own their online fans — that is, every time an artist does something online, they “rent” fans from the platform being used. The other hazard: Online income is secondhand. “They earn money as a share of someone else’s business … and it tends to not be very much,” Westergren said.

Typically, “artists are not professional database managers or marketers,” Geiger said, so if a qualified individual is not available to manage an act’s database, “it might be smarter leaving all of those audiences on those discreet platforms and learning how to work them.”

Geiger also stressed how important it is for artists to produce a range of content “to feed your audience” — and when it comes to music, maybe release a few songs at a time to Spotify or Bandcamp, followed sometime later by a full album, for “more hits to the system.”

“You gotta look at this, in my opinion, like a store,” Geiger said. “And that feels crass for an artist. If it was a record store, it’d feel romantic. So now the store can have records; you can have vinyl and ship it and make money … you can carry other things. You can put a birthday greeting as a product. … Artists who make money in the future will have to get a little more sophisticated and open-minded about what their store looks like — what do their fans want, and think about it from a fan’s point of view.”

Fans and artists alike should expect “a full overhaul” of the touring industry in America, said Panache Booking and Panache Management’s Michelle Cable during the “We Want Live Shows Again! Concerts in a Post-COVID World” panel on March 17.

Left to right: Paradigm's Tom Windish, Driift's Adam Shore and Panache's Michelle Cable

Left to right: Paradigm's Tom Windish, Driift's Adam Shore and Panache's Michelle Cable

What’s happening in Australia, where some of the artists Cable manages have performed in recent months, might offer a preview of what to expect in the United States. She’s heard that contact tracing is in place there “for anyone who’s actually within the venue — the artist, the crew, the fans … I know also one thing that the venue has to pay for is a COVID marshal, which is someone who pretty much is at the show as like an additional security guard overseeing that people actually wear masks and are following safety measures.”

She added, “Another thing that has to happen … every artist, crew and team have to provide a COVID safety plan before the show is actually happening and confirmed. … It’s this whole other layer of organization and educating ourselves, from the roadie to the artist onstage.”

“I feel like in America, artists and their crews will take on that responsibility themselves,” said Tom Windish, an agent with the Paradigm Talent Agency. “There won’t be a national protocol that says, ‘You need to do it like this.’ I don’t even think there will be a state protocol that says, ‘You need to do things like this.’ There might be some regulations or guidelines for venues in certain cities or states.”

Whatever additional costs that are incurred for COVID protocols “will affect the artists negatively,” said Windish, adding that he expects ticket prices to increase.

WELCOME TO WILLIE’S WORLD

Better late than never for Willie Nelson to speak at South by Southwest.

In 1992, the music legend was scheduled to deliver a SXSW keynote address, but his bus didn’t make it to Austin in time for the morning session.

Willie Nelson being interviewed by Andy Langer (top right)

Willie Nelson being interviewed by Andy Langer (top right)

No such problem this year: Nelson’s keynote interview with Austin City Limits Radio host and Texas Monthly writer Andy Langer was recorded in mid-February. Langer came loaded with a wide range of questions (including a few about playing dominoes, one of Nelson’s hobbies) and delivered them in rapid-fire fashion. At times the 87-year-old Nelson’s answers were brief, and there were instances where he would respond to questions rather than directly answer them.

What follows are some of Nelson’s full and partial replies to Langer’s questions and topics.

On “staying still” during the pandemic:

“Well, it’s been really tough on me. But I can imagine it’s been tough not only on me the performer but also everybody else who happens to be in the audience.”

On a reported album he recorded during the pandemic:

“Yeah, me and all of the kids got together — the family, sister Bobbie and all of us. It started out being a gospel album, and then we added this song and that song, so I decided to call it a family album.”

Whether he misses his tour bus:

“It’s sitting right down there a little ways, and every now and then I go and sit in it just to pretend I’m going somewhere.”

On how he keeps his temper in check:

“I smoke a lot of pot. … It keeps me from killing people, you know. Or it keeps me from getting killed. … Think positive — that helps.”

On his belief that music should be bringing people together:

“That’s why at our shows you don’t hear any political speeches at all. I hope everybody out there is independent, like I am (laughs). Whatever they want to be, that’s cool with me; as long as they like ‘On the Road Again,’ we can be happy.”

What remains on his bucket list:

“I haven’t won all-around cowboy yet.”

READY FOR THEIR CLOSE-UPS: JAZZ FEST, TOM PETTY

Like past editions, SXSW 2021 screened its share of noteworthy music documentaries — some still in progress, others as finished products.

Among the former was Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story: Scenes From the Rough Cut. From the looks of what was shown in the roughly 26-minute presentation, producer-director Frank Marshall (who recently directed The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart) and co-director Ryan Suffern are well on their way to completing a must-see documentary.

George Wein, founder of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, in "Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story."

George Wein, founder of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, in "Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story."

The rough cut featured a mix of footage from the 50th edition of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, along with archival clips and plenty of interviews. Who better to hear about the origins of Jazz Fest than from its founder, George Wein, who says in a recent interview, “New Orleans has the only really unique culture in America that belongs to itself, and I said the festival must be a reflection of New Orleans and Louisiana culture.” Festival adviser Ellis Marsalis Jr. (who died in 2020) and producer Quint Davis (who still handles those duties today) also are shown in interviews filmed for this documentary.

As Marshall pointed out in cutaway commentary that probably won’t be in the final cut, Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story also focuses on the significance of the event’s cuisine, with vendors coming from all over Louisiana.

“The music and the food — they go together,” says singer-guitarist Tab Benoit in the rough cut. “It takes about four hours to make gumbo. Let’s go dance for four hours while the food’s being cooked, and we come back and feast and then play some more.”

Rick Rubin and Tom Petty in a scene from the documentary "Somewhere You Feel Free."

Rick Rubin and Tom Petty in a scene from the documentary "Somewhere You Feel Free."

“I feel very prolific right now,” Tom Petty says near the start of the documentary Somewhere You Feel Free. As Petty’s loyal fans know, he did write and record a lot of material leading up to the 1994 album Wildflowers, so it seems appropriate that there was a lot of video footage shot during that time.

Named for a lyric from the title track to that Petty solo album, Somewhere You Feel Free made its world premiere during SXSW 2021. At its core is crisp B&W 16mm footage from the Wildflowers era that was unearthed in early 2020, with recently filmed commentary from principal players providing context and perspective.

Early in the film, there’s a great scene with Petty on acoustic guitar, seated to the left of pianist Benmont Tench’s bench, as they run through the song “Wildflowers” together, followed by Petty explaining how quickly the song came to him.

Cut to the recent past, and Wildflowers co-producer Rick Rubin talks about “the different colors” within the “Wildflowers” track that “keep it very interesting and compelling, and without knowing it, makes you want to listen to it over and over again.”

Rubin’s reflections prove to be as important to this documentary as his production style was to making Wildflowers. And not only does he have a knack for guiding artists to great performances, he’s pretty good at drawing out information from them, too. Director Mary Wharton makes great use of an outdoor discussion Rubin has with Tench and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell. Asked by Rubin what made the Wildflowers album different from the Jeff Lynne co-produced Full Moon Fever, Campbell said the goal was “to get back to live performance — organic tracks and not one thing at a time.”

“The records with Jeff, they are beautiful, crafted pop records,” added fellow Heartbreaker Tench, referring to 1989’s Fever and 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open. “This is almost like taking what you learned from Jeff and setting it free by going, ‘We aren’t going to build it. We’re going to see what happens if we do this.’”

With lots of smiles and smoking throughout, Somewhere You Feel Free also delves into Petty’s move from MCA to Warner Bros.; the demise of his first marriage; the complicated, uneasy end of drummer Stan Lynch’s tenure in the Heartbreakers, and the arrival of Lynch’s replacement, Steve Ferrone.

STANDOUT SOUNDS

All SXSW 2021 performances “were filmed following strict COVID-19 safety guidelines, as determined by the World Health Organization and the individual territories in which they were filmed,” per a note that appeared at the top of the chat area accompanying all showcases.

No big surprise there. What did raise eyebrows was the length of individual sets. Watching an artist only play one or two songs prompted thoughts of “Why bother?” and, in cases where the material was underwhelming, “So are these really your best tunes?”

Nevertheless, there were solo artists and bands that made a good impression with their limited time.

Wandering Hearts collage

The Wandering Hearts — This trio from the United Kingdom plays Americana with vocal harmonies that rank up there with the best of anything from any genre. The group’s four-song showcase featured “I Feel It Too” and “Dolores,” both of which appear on the Hearts’ self-titled second album, due in July.

Sasha and the Valentines 2

Sasha and the Valentines — Led by singer Sarah Addi, the Austin-based band strikes the ear like an airier, pop-leaning Neko Case floating above a tight unit distinguished by its use of synth and reverbed guitar. Look for the quintet’s debut album, So You Think You Found Love? — featuring “Flower” and “Tears for Mars” — on April 16.

Carson McHone

Carson McHone — Austin singer-songwriter McHone was impressive at SXSW 2016, and she was even better this year as one of the acts on the Nine Mile Records showcase, backed by a formidable band that provided ample kick to her new material.

Yamaha showcase_March 20

Katie Cole / Aaron Lee Tasjan / Jade Jackson and Aubrie Sellers — The Yamaha Guitars & Bluegrass Situation showcase lineup was complementary and commendable. The artists are not newcomers per se, but they’re not household names, either, although the potential for that to happen is there.

Cole, who has a gig this summer playing keyboards for Smashing Pumpkins, is a native of Australia now based in Nashville, and she embodies Music City’s best characteristics (see “I’m Gonna Love You,” her latest single). Tasjan, who’s been cranking out albums and EPs for more than a decade, is no slouch on guitar or piano, with a voice that floats between Rodney Crowell and Leon Russell — at least that’s how his vocals came across in this short set (his “Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!” album dropped in February). Solo artists Jackson and Sellers teamed up last year during quarantine to write, and they sounded great together performing the not-yet-released “The World Is Black.”