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