Sometimes, you stumble across an artist that makes you stand up straight, abandon your drink, forget the conversation, and listen completely. Once in a while, you find an artist so good that you will want to stop listening to music entirely--there can be nothing else, after all. Dessa is one such artist.
[jump] She was arguably 2010's brightest burning star on the Minneapolis hip-hop scene, showing off her talents as a singer, songwriter, spoken-word artist, and MC. And for those lucky few that found themselves arranged before her at the Aster Café on New Year's Eve, the full range of her talents was on display.
She played the majority of her January-released album A Badly Broken Code, as well as some of her older songs from her 2005 debut EP False Hopes, infusing her set with deliciously well-executed jazz selections from her band. The live sound was heavy on the bass line, as expected, and emphatically soulful. There were none of the wind instruments featured on Code, but with Dustin Kiel on guitar and keyboards, Joey Van Philips on drums and vibraphone during the first set, Sean McPherson on bass and vocals, and Kahlil Brewington on drums during the second set, the band hardly needed anything else.
With her head bobbing in time with the beat, and a voice full of assurance, Dessa started her first set with "Figure 8s" and led the audience strong through a dozen songs. She was joined intermittently on back-up vocals by Aby Wolf, who is a solid singer/songwriter in her own right, and it was truly a pleasure seeing the two leading ladies sharing the stage. Wolf's exquisite contributions to songs like "The Bullpen" were markedly significant additions to the set.
As Dessa balanced between her trademark pulsing rap lyrics and the haunting voice you almost forget she has, she kept a Cheshire cat's grin fixed on her face. Sly and devious with her dark eyes, she is utterly striking--this is a woman who can quiet a packed room with her gaze.
It is clear, from the way she moves her body to the way she enunciates the words that fly from her lips, that she is in touch with everything. On songs like "The Crow", featuring heavy wordplay and acid-laced storytelling, Dessa, always center stage, held one hand on the microphone and the other holding steady in midair. And on "Into The Spin", when she closes her eyes and sings, you know she's going back to the root of the song. Yes, her energy is that transformative.
"It's a very distinct recalibration," mused Dessa between songs, referring to the difference between playing a Doomtree show and a solo, sit-down show. "Because you can tell if you're doing something people like [at a rap show]. People are like, 'Yeah!' And if people don't like it, they're like, 'No!' But for shows like this, if people are enjoying a sad song, it looks a lot like they're not enjoying it at all." The audience laughed and cheered; it is highly doubtful that there could be anyone in the room who was even slightly disappointed.
Yet even with all that emotion, and all those somber lyrics, Dessa is an expert in leading the mood and keeping it light.
"If you consumed half the cocktails I consumed in that set break, we're all feeling pretty fantastic!" she announced at the beginning of the second set, a deep laugh in her throat. "Who needs concerts?" she asked jokingly, before launching into a stirring version of "Mineshaft."Somehow, she is at once the toughest woman in the room and the most vulnerable. It is possible that Dessa's greatest talent is in her honesty; she is raw and confrontational in a way that will challenge listeners to drag their own skeletons out from the closet and face them again.
But old skeletons were not the theme of the evening, and in the middle of "Sadie Hawkins," Dessa, dancing joyously around the small stage, started the countdown to midnight, ticking the seconds away with her fingers.
There were plenty other memorable moments throughout the show. Her rendition of Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" was so gloriously anguished that you could hear hearts breaking, and could imagine them being stitched back up with gold thread. She closed the night with a one-song encore, "Dixon's Girl," a very satisfied look on her face.
"This has been one of the better nights of the best year of my life," announced Dessa to the crowd, beaming in the afterglow of her performance. Certainly not a bad way to start a new year, either.
Critic's Bias: It's DESSA. Find someone who is not in love with her. Go ahead, try.
The Crowd: Beyond thrilled to be enjoying a very special show at the very intimate Aster Café on New Year's Eve.
Overheard In The Crowd: Variations of "Best show I've seen ever," "She's amazing," and "Holy fuck." (The last one being the most widely repeated.)
Random Notebook Dump: Mark Wheat was there. That was just an additional perk. Also, as a bonus surprise for the audience, everyone in attendance got an autographed copy of the beautiful concert poster designed by Chelsea Brink.
If & When
And the Camera
Into The Spin
Matches To Paper Dolls
It's Only Me