Dessa at the Cedar's 416 Club Commissions, 1/23/11


The 416 Club Commissions featuring Dessa

January 23, 2011

Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis

Dessa was nervous to be playing in front of a sold-out crowd last night at the Cedar Cultural Center. You could tell, because not only did she tell the audience she was nervous before starting her set, but she had that kind of edgy energy that came out in the way she glanced at her band, gripped the microphone, and twitched her fingers between songs.

[jump] Nerves were in order, though, when you consider the high expectation for Dessa's bill last evening--to perform a collective 30 minutes of brand-new material with new collaborators, in front of over 500 people and with TPT taping the performance.  It is rare for an artist to be commissioned to produce new music, and it is brave for an artist to make that music with new, unfamiliar talents, but that is the premise of the Cedar's 416 Club Commissions, funded by the Jerome Foundation--to push the boundaries of an artist's style and set the stage for musical magic.

Dessa started her set with a few familiar songs, styled differently than on her record A Badly Broken Code--sweeter, a bit slower--especially on "Mineshaft II." Throughout the evening, singer Aby Wolf joined Dessa intermittently as a back-up vocalist for some songs, and her longtime friend and collaborator seemed to help her take some of the edge off the pressure of the evening, as the two ladies shared some "Yeah, we got this" looks as they nailed the notes and hit the sweet spots.


Experimental vocalist Mankwe Ndosi joined Dessa on stage for two of the new songs showcased that evening. Ndosi, who opened the evening with a "teaser" 3-song set, is like a one-woman beatbox-synth-spoken word trifecta of talent.

"Are you ready?" she asked Dessa, smiling, a song already in her voice.

"No!" replied Dessa, laughing.

"Yes you are!" said a joyful Ndosi. "You've been always ready for this."

And with that, Ndosi launched into the beginning of "Motown," where she broke down her voice into tribal-esque sounds and vocals, producing the beat for the song on her own. Dessa shrank away from her, laughing bashfully, making faces as Ndosi sounded off, before she jumped in with the lyrics, and they played it out on stage.

Ndosi's own sound, at once so radically different from Dessa's, is still a strong complement. It is clear the artists approach music from different places, and Dessa was clearly pushing herself out of her comfort zone, but the ending partnership between the two women was a thing to behold, as the second song, "Swing," was just an improvised vocal duet without lyrics. Ndosi and Dessa grinned at each other gleefully as they missed some notes and captained others.

Following Ndosi, Dessa asked palmas musicians Trevor May and Aaron Maus to join her on stage, and they joined her on a revamped version of "Sadie Hawkins," heavy on the Latin influence as Dessa rapped in Spanish to the beats of the flamenco clapping. May and Maus are organic music-makers, and their clapping added a new tension to Dessa's sound as they led into the haunting new song "The Man I Knew," written by Dessa's guitarist/keyboardist Dustin Kiel, with Aby Wolf again on back-up vocals.

That was only halfway through the set. May and Maus left the stage, and Dessa broke out new, cabaret-style arrangements of "Figure 8s" and "Dixon's Girl", with the audience repeating the lyrics on the latter song back to her. Kahlil Queen stepping in on keys and vocals for "Anabel", and it was an orchestral, ballad-style heartbreaking thing to hear.

A wild Spanish-style electric guitar and electric mandolin instrumental interlude followed, and Dessa delighted in it. "That was designed to showcase the fact that there was a mandolin on stage," she announced to the crowd. "So don't get it twisted. There's a mandolin on stage, okay guys?"

Mandolin player Joe Boucha started in on the new song "Mandolin in 7/4," and it was the only song where Dessa grabbed a music stand and used sheets to assist her.

"That was the last hard one," she smiled to the audience after it was over. The last three songs--"The Chaconne," "Matches to Paper Dolls," and "Into the Spin"--were all new arrangements, with Aby Wolf adding back-up vocals and Boucha pitching in on the mandolin. At the end of her set, Dessa, apparently still feeling the edge of the evening, hurried through a thank you and then dashed off stage--only to be called back, of course, for an encore. Kahlil Queen rejoined her for a different arrangement of "Anabel," a much more upbeat, swinging version that had the audience clapping along.

Barely into 2011, we can already see the growth of a year since Dessa's January 2010-released A Badly Broken Code. Nerves or not, the caliber of her performance and the brave new work that came out of the Cedar commission was mind-expanding; surely, Dessa's roots will only get deeper from here, and with any luck, we will be seeing her continue to push boundaries and break down walls.

Critic's Bias: I know it's not healthy to be utterly convinced that an artist can do no wrong, but seriously.... Can Dessa do wrong?  

The Crowd: Packed. And so very in love with everything that happened on stage, from Mankwe Ndosi down to the very last beat from Dessa.

Overheard In The Crowd: "If she told me to jump of a bridge, I wouldn't question her," said a newly minted Dessa fan somewhere behind me. Sentiments from others were much of the same throughout.

Random Notebook Dump: Following Ndosi and Dessa's song "Motown", one of my friends wanted to know where the song was available for purchase or download. I explained that it wasn't--that was what was so special about this performance. Not only was it the debut of new stuff, it was also highly exclusive--the new material hasn't been recorded (in some cases, it has hardly been rehearsed), and there is no telling if it will be recorded and available to the public. Who knows, though--the collaborative songs were hot, and it would please many people if they were recorded. At the very least, you can watch YouTube for fan-recorded videos of the new material.


Also, Alexei Moon Casselle's other project, Crescent Moon is in Big Trouble, was the second opener of the evening--and it was such a treat to see Alexei in a different light, beyond his work in Roma di Luna. Truly another multi-dimensional artist with talent and promise.

For more photos: See our full slideshow by Meredith Westin, including shots of openers Crescent Moon is in Big Trouble.


It's Only Me


Mineshaft II




Sadie Hawkins

The Man I Knew

Figures 8s

Dixon's Girl



Mandolin in 7/4

The Chaconne


Matches to Paper Dolls

Into the Spin


Anabel (another version)