SXSW 2012: Easing into the music fest with Dustin Wong


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If only every day of the annual South by Southwest music festival were like Tuesday, the first of the six-day marathon: easy lines, little drunkenness, a joyous sense of anticitipation that you can feel walking down 6th Street, where music pours out of every club but the crowds are way less insane than later in the week.

For a critic, it’s more comfortable on these opening days, because the SXSW sensation overload can be overwhelming. Many of us are used to living in our musical cocoons, where we pick all the important details of the experience, including the music we’re hearing, the volume and whether what’s coming out of the speakers is worthy of a hard listen or a scan. And we do a lot of that stuff alone, in our heads and ears -- not standing next to a bunch of chatterboxes chasing the next Pitchfork flavor of the month.


Too, concerts and club shows fall in predictable patterns, and we have time to prepare, time to better contextualize what’s going to happen when the band starts. Not so here, where melodies tease from every door, where competing drum patterns mingle on the street to create a rhythmic confusion that sounds like shoes in a clothes dryer.

But then, as happened Tuesday night -- as I headed, yes, to the Pitchfork showcase at Mohawk -- a sound will rise above the others and will trigger a curiosity. In this case, while walking down Red River, a pretty solo guitar melody played by one Dustin Wong floated out of the door of the Swan Dive.

Wong, from Brooklyn, who was sitting in a chair with his Fender guitar, was shoeless but wearing white socks, triggering effects pedals and random boxes to build big sonic structures. He’d start with a simple rhythmic idea that he’d tap out on his strings, which he’d then loop to build a percussive track, and on top of that he continued to build, layer and layer of sonic nuance -- a low-end line to serve as driving bass, some upper-range counter-melodies to add depth. Within minutes, he’d crafted something as dynamic as a symphony, all with two feet, two hands and a voice. He did this over and over again, each a wonderful variation.

Wong records on the Chicago label Thrill Jockey, has two albums (and a cassette-only release on Watercolor in 2010), and his name had passed through my ears as someone to see. But I’d buried the tip somewhere, so probably wouldn’t have seen him if not for the breeze that carried his soundwaves to my ears. Had it blown in a different direction on Tuesday, I’d maybe have made it down to Pitchfork to see Mr. MF eXquire, a hot Brooklyn rapper. No biggie. We’ve got five days left, plenty of time to chase the buzz. And if you’re reading this in Austin, Texas, Wong plays at least five more times.


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-- Randall Roberts