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Dijon brings his inventive pop-R&B sound into the spotlight

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A previous version of this story misstated the first name of the singer Dijon. It is Dijon Duenas, not Derrick Duenas. This version has been corrected.

The Maryland-bred, Los Angeles-based singer Dijon and his band are gearing up for their first headlining tour since the pandemic began. For the artist born Dijon Duenas in 1992, the prevailing emotions are … all of them.

“It’s a trip. It’s very crazy, very overwhelming,” Dijon says, reflecting on the fact that, as of press time, all but one of the shows are sold out. “I want to find a sustainable way to interact and show how grateful the vibe is, but it’s weird. It’s pretty bugged out. I don’t really know how I’m supposed to process it, but I’m trying to.”

Dijon was born in Germany, spent much of his childhood bouncing around the United States as the son of military parents and attended the University of Maryland. He approached music — which he began releasing online in 2017 — as a reaction to the indie R&B, pop and rock scenes in the DMV, but as a foil to the prevailing sounds. “I moved around so much that Maryland is the place that I lived in longest, but I still had a mentality of a distance from the music scene there,” he says.

That drive and singular vision resulted in 2021’s “Absolutely,” a stunning record of avant-pop fragments and homespun folk R&B. It earned Dijon an opening slot on Bon Iver’s recent North American tour, which served as a warm-up to the headlining run he and his band will begin on April 29.

With the Bon Iver tour, Dijon had to figure out how to make “Absolutely” come alive in a new setting, while performing in front of audiences both larger and perhaps more ambivalent to his music than he is likely to encounter for a long time. Never mind that “Absolutely” is an intensely studio-driven record, full of subtle effects and electronic flourishes that give the album its depth.

He and his band translated much of the making-of process of “Absolutely” into a style that suited performances on outdoor stages, with everything amplified and turned up to 11. The drums were massive, Dijon occasionally screamed lines that appear hushed on the record, and the guitar parts ricocheted off the outer expanses of lawn seats like pinballs shortly after takeoff.

Though Dijon runs the show and is front and center on “Absolutely” and earlier EPs like 2020’s “How Do You Feel About Getting Married?,” the communal spirit of the project generally and the live show specifically is palpable. “There’s this bubble that you create when you’re making this stuff, during the pandemic, and then jumping back in, especially for those crowds that don’t necessarily know the philosophy of the stuff that you’re trying to do, that pops,” he says. “It can be both really exciting and funny. I think it’s actually very funny at times. It can be kind of freaky, too.”

Dijon and his band — Jack Karaszewski on guitar, bass, and modular synthesizers; Henry Kwapis on drums; Mk.gee on guitar and keyboards; and Ryan Richter on lap steel, guitar and bass — lean into that freakiness. Set staples like “Absolutely” favorites “Many Times” and “The Dress” get messed with, sometimes sped up, sometimes slowed down, littered with novel effects or the occasional improvisational run. “During one show, we got very close to accidentally going off the rails and making a whole new thing, which we stopped, but gave us new energy,” Dijon says with a chuckle.

Live, the quintet takes the indie-pop R&B DNA of “Absolutely” and flavors it with the crispy chamber pop of early 2010s indie rock, giving the music a style that sounds a bit like Blake Mills and Pino Palladino backing D’Angelo. It’s deeply groove-oriented but remarkably loose in feel; it’s a testament to the skill of Dijon’s band, who are tightknit and familiar with their particular idiosyncrasies after being integral to the “Absolutely” process since its inception.

“The major philosophy that runs through the live show is that we get pretty bored just trying to tell the same story. Even if there’s a subtle difference, it allows for changes and shifts,” Dijon says. “It just comes from boredom. The philosophy of the record is trying to do something different. Nobody here is interested in trying to spread some gospel that we’re good at playing.” The ethos is one built around community: “It’s a camaraderie thing, and naturally some sort of shifts or improvisations will come out of it.”

The run of Bon Iver shows served as a nice warm-up for Dijon and his band, before they begin their run of “Absolutely” shows, which will bring them to Sixth & I on May 2. Being the opener on a sprawling national tour isn’t particularly glamorous, but he says it was a humbling experience, one that made him prove his mission statement to audiences who were eager to see the main act. With those dates behind him, he’s set to embark on a run with his friends, at shows in which everyone will be there to see them.

May 2 at 8 p.m. at Sixth & I, 600 I St. NW. Sold out. Proof of vaccination is required for admittance.

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