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Dessa at First Avenue, 6/29/13

Dessa at First Avenue, 6/29/13
Photo by Erik Hess

Dessa
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Saturday, June 29, 2013

For her first headlining gig at First Avenue's Mainroom, Dessa held nothing back. She made it clear from the first moment the screen came up that it was going to be her night, as she stepped out onto the stage looking ready for war in svelte jeans, combat boots, and a military jacket, with her long hair pulled back into a tight braid.

Dessa launched immediately into "The Lamb," one of the most haunting, ominous tracks off her new album, Parts of Speech, revved up for the First Avenue set with some particularly fierce vocal harmonies by Aby Wolf.

Many of the songs in Dessa's two-hour set -- a smart blend of new and old material -- were given a new treatment for her First Avenue debut. For all that it's filled with ballads and subtle lyricism, Parts of Speech translates remarkably well to a high-energy hip-hop crowd. Doomtree beatmakers Paper Tiger and Lazerbeak stepped on and off stage throughout the night to fill in live production, and her longtime live band and backing vocalist Wolf remained with her for most of the evening.

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Slideshow: Dessa at First Avenue


But even with the huge stage, the expensive-looking lights that rotated moody colors throughout the set, and the sweaty, sold-out room, Dessa had no problem getting close to the audience. A few songs in, she slid down by the edge of the stage and talked about her cab ride over to the gig.

"I was kind of nervous in the back seat, and so I went to the cabbie, I was like, 'I'm sure you constantly talk to motherfuckers in all states of disrepair,' and he was like, 'That's absolutely true.'" Dessa laughed with the crowd, the corners of her mouth turning up in a sly grin. "I was like, 'Okay, so here's the deal, I'm going to First Avenue, I'm going to do a show, and I'm a little nervous man, whatchu got? Let's get this tip up.' And he was like, "I got you. First, you find your friends.' I was like, 'Absolutely.' And then he says, 'After the first hour,' and I'm like, the first hour? The set's more than 50 percent -- oh, he's giving me advice on how not to be nervous attending a show."

Dessa at First Avenue, 6/29/13
Dessa at First Avenue, 6/29/13
Photos by Erik Hess

For Dessa -- who you can bet thinks through everything 10 times over -- each element in the night was a carefully choreographed thing. She shared plenty of impressive vocal tricks with Wolf. As "551" built up to its crescendo, Dessa removed her trademark hoops mid-song, hitting high notes that don't exist on any album; in "Dixon's Girl," she and Wolf stepped down onto the small platform that was built off the stage and twisted their harmonies into something entirely new. The greatest accomplishment in all of the rearrangements and the tricks was, perhaps, making it all seem so effortless.

Dessa at First Avenue, 6/29/13
Dessa at First Avenue, 6/29/13
Dessa at First Avenue, 6/29/13
Photos by Erik Hess

As Dessa welcomed Lizzo, Caroline Smith, and New York-based Aviva Jaye onstage for a stirring, sensational rendition of "Sound the Bells," she grabbed an audience member's camera with a quick "Oh, just give me this thing," and snapped a photo herself. It marked the halfway point in her set, and following "Bells," Dessa welcomed the entire Doomtree crew on stage. The five-song mini set-within-a-set that followed saw a song powered by each of the members -- a careful selection of Doomtree best-ofs, featuring "Wren," "Team the Best Team," "Little Mercy," "Kid Gloves," and "Low Light Low Life."

 

Dessa closed things out with four tracks from her new album, ending with a moving "Dear Marie," with the added help of her quartet of backing vocalists. She left the stage beaming, and no one had to wait long for her expected encore. She was all smiles; the entire night, it seemed that she hadn't even need to stop for breath.

Dessa at First Avenue, 6/29/13
Photo by Erik Hess

"The only reason that musicians like us have the resources to make such a span of stylistic output is because we're not beholden to people," Dessa declared at the onset of her encore to explosive cheers. Her voice was raw, and as she peered solemnly out into the crowd, it was the first time in the evening that she seemed to take a collective moment.

"The reason that we're not beholden is because we make our earning and our living wage 10 motherfucking dollars at a time over there," Dessa continued, gesturing to the merch tables. "So thank you for ten years of support."

Critic's bias: At this point, I kind of feel like I know what I'm getting when I go to see a Dessa show -- but I was very interested in hearing the new material and seeing how it fell out on stage.

The crowd: Dessa superfans, every one of them.

Overheard in the crowd: "Who was that group on stage with her? Was that Doomtree?" asked a girl behind me to her companion, utterly serious.

Random notebook dump: Zoo Animal opened the night, and wow -- what a new sound they have. If you haven't seen Holly Hansen perform lately, find her and do it soon; you'll see a truly transformed artist. The old songs are more fiercely rocking than ever before, and the new songs are soulful and gritty. It might be weird to call them a "band to watch" at this point -- Zoo Animal has been around for years now -- but seriously. Watch them.

Setlist:

Dessa at First Avenue, 6/29/13

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