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SXSW 2011: Dennen, Nathanson turn up the volume

California singer/songwriters make an electric impression with new songs from their forthcoming albums
Matt Nathanson performs March 16 during SXSW. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Matt Nathanson performs March 16 during SXSW. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

By Chris M. Junior

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.