October 28, 2011
Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul
Dessa's CD-release party at the Fitzgerald Theater on Friday night was about as far from a rap show as you could get. Backed by an excellent chamber group and back-up singers, and with her Doomtree pals tucked neatly into one of the balconies overlooking the stage, Dessa took the opportunity to cast aside all of her other titles -- writer, poet, teacher, rapper -- to to focus squarely on her expanding talents as soulful singer and engaging, downright hilarious storyteller.
Dessa started off the evening by gushing her appreciation for Minnesota Public Radio (in addition to being a favorite of the Current's, she was also featured in a lengthy profile last week on Kerri Miller's Midmorning ), saying she had always wanted to appear in an episode of This American Life and copping Ira Glass's signature hushed, staccato delivery style to read the audience and introduction to her show.
There were many dualities in the release show for her new album, Castor, The Twin, which dramatically reinterprets many of the songs on her breakout album, A Badly Broken Code, to a tender extreme. There were no hard edges to be found on Friday night, thanks to the warm embrace of her core backing band (Dustin Kiel on guitar and piano, Joey Van Phillips on drums, and the omnipresent Sean McPherson on bass), a string quartet, and series of special guests, the most prominent of which was singer Aby Wolf, who spent more time on stage next to Dessa than off. It's clear that the two singers share an intimate connection, which Dessa explained was due to the fact that they spend more time communicating through their singing than through talking, and it's clear that working closely with such an innately talented singer like Wolf has helped Dessa to uncover her own strengths.
The band touched on all of the tracks on the new Castor, The Twin, in addition to reworking a few familiar tunes from her work with Doomtree -- "Sadie Hawkins" sizzled with the addition of a real piano instead of a looped beat, while "Little Mercy," a track off the forthcoming Doomtree record No Kings, expanded into an almost overwhelming tidal wave sad sweetness with the addition of Cecil Otter, Wolf, Channy Casselle, and Chastity Brown.
Melancholy is a recurring theme in many of Dessa's songs, and she transfers that emotion quite eloquently into her performances; Friday night, especially, the group dug deep to create somber moods and poignant moments, and it made for an almost uncomfortably emotional ride. (Afterwards, Sims said that he spent the entire show with his head in his hand, trying to steady himself. "Feelings!" he laughed. "They just come right in.") Her storytelling, too, demolished any walls that normally exist between performer and audience, and through a series of stories about her connection with her mother and her relationship with her voice, it became clear that Dessa was taking this opportunity to connect with her increasingly wide audience on a very personal level. "Mineshaft 2," "The Chaconne," and "Matches to Paper Dolls" were all enhanced by the insight she provided with her stories.
The seriousness was interrupted by a few monologues that were outrageously funny, especially a tale about studying with a new vocal teacher who wanted her to try to breathe through her vagina, and it provided a much-needed release amid a night of introspection. One gets the impression that Dessa thinks about everything more than most of us think about anything, but that happens to make her the perfect candidate to narrate her own journey through her artistry and life.
Personal bias: I've been a Dessa fan since the first time I saw her perform, but now that I've seen her voice improve so dramatically I'm really excited where she'll take us next. She's just getting warmed up.
The crowd: Current listeners. Exceedingly polite.
Overheard in the crowd: Lots of singing-along-quietly-under-the-breath happening, especially during "Dixon's Girl" and "The Chaconne."
Random notebook dump: What a treat to hear three of the Twin Cities' best vocalists together. Channy, Chastity, and Aby should travel around the country devastating everyone with their combined abilities.