The Band Is Dead, Long Live the Band

At the South by Southwest music conference, Dustin Wong builds a rock show and Danny Brown transfixes an audience—all by themselves.

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Ka-chunk. It's an old, tired onomonapeia, but it's the best I've got to describe the first sound that came out of Dustin Wong at his Tuesday night South by Southwest performance in Austin. The floppy-haired, can't-be-more-than-24-years-old guitarist took to the stage at Swan Dive for Yours Truly showcase and, by himself, played two tones that added up to a classic, frictional sound. Ka-chunk.

It kept going. Well, he kept going, for maybe 15 seconds, playing the same two chords over and over. He then stepped on some guitar pedal and the ka-chunking went on, even after he started strumming something else—the product of some sort of looping mechanism. Then came a strident bass sound, an upward-shooting guitar melody, and a lattice of joyous, afro-poppy notes. The rhythms expanded and collapsed, the layers developed, and some sounds dropped out as others became more insistent. Close your eyes, and it wasn't one guy up there. It was a band—likely with more than four people.

Wong, of the recently dissolved, brilliantly chaotic Baltimore quartet Ponytail, is no pioneer. Solo artists have been harnessing the power of live loops via pedals for a long time (I don't claim to know the tech history here, but it was nearly ten years ago that some friends of mine were going gaga over Mellodrone's ability to recreate a full-band sound with one dude on some pedals). But what's impressive about Wong in particular, beyond his nice knack for instrumental melodies, is his ability to move the dynamics of his sounds in multiple directions: not only successively louder as he adds more dimensions, but also quieter as he subtracts and, crucially, faster or slower as he messes with beats and collapses melodic layers into percussive pieces.

It's popular to claim that rock is dead, and I don't know whether a set like Wong's rebukes or bolsters that idea. On one hand, here's a guitarist making bona fide, speaker-blowing body music with just a set of pedals. On the other hand, there he is, alone—no need for a drummer or bassist or singer or whatever. There's artifice to it, but everything smithed via effects comes from what the artist actually created. Authenticity inspectors, have fun with that.

Wong may have more in common with artists in anti-rock universes like hip hop and electronica. That's not a problem, of course—despite one common perception, rap can make for great live music. Around Midnight Tuesday, critically adored rhymer Danny Brown took to the stage at an Austin warehouse for XXL's "freshman class" showcase. His hair teased to a John-Hughes-heroine poof, his voice an ornery squawk, Brown delivered his hilarious, filthy, morbid narratives in the same way he's been doing for a year or two now.

As happens with most rap, the beats behind him were piped in. But the action came from the actual act of creation that was happening on stage; from the articulation, the bantering, and the gesturing. In that way, we weren't far off from what Wong, or from what any decent performer, delivers in concert: sounds that weren't there before, summoned and assembled in a way that makes us hum, sing, and jump along. If rock's dead, or if bands are, then what we've got in Wong and Brown are enjoyable enough—the spectacle of one human sounding like more.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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