Jeremy Messersmith's 'Works for Words' at the Fitzgerald, 4/9/11

"Works for Words" with Jeremy Messersmith, Chris Koza, Dessa, Aby Wolf, Lucy Michelle, Brian Tighe

April 9, 2011
Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul

I've said this before, but it's something that bears repeating: Last month, coming down off the rush of seeing 60+ Minnesota bands take over Austin, Texas for SXSW, I wrote that the Minnesota music scene is currently in the midst of an upswing. I don't know if the quantity of bands writing and recording music in our fair state has increased, decreased, or stayed flat, but the quality certainly has -- and at Jeremy Messersmith's "Works for Words" show at the Fitzgerald on Saturday night, I was again reminded how much talented is coursing through the veins of the local music community.

I went into the "Works for Words" show expecting a delightfully nerdy time, and was surprised that the show was much, much more than a bit of clever wordplay. I don't feel guilty telling you that it was one of the best shows I've seen so far this year, local or national (especially given that MPR videotaped and recorded the whole thing for posterity), and it was an experience that will stay with me for quite some time.

Messersmith opened the evening by performing one of his own songs, "Dillinger Eyes," followed by a cover of Ron Sexsmith's "Strawberry Blonde," who Messersmith credited as being one of his favorite songwriters. As he sang, a large projection screen flashed some of the words in time with the music in a presentation known as kinetic typography (made famous by master word-nerd Jonathan Coulton and his video "Shop Vac"), making it easy to focus completely on the song lyrics.

Jeremy Messersmith's 'Works for Words' at the Fitzgerald, 4/9/11
Photos by Nate Ryan, courtesy of MPR

After a couple more covers (including an amazing rendition of Dolly's "Jolene"), Messersmith brought out his first guest, Lucy Michelle, and announced that she would be performing a song by Daniel Johnston. What followed was absolutely extraordinary; backed by the four-piece string section and accompanying herself quietly on the ukulele, Michelle slowly sang the melody for Johnston's heartbreaking hymnal, "Worried Shoes." When she sings her own songs, Michelle tends to insert a lot of yelps and other vocal quirks into her melodies, and it was really stunning to hear her use a more straightforward, elegant singing style.

The audience showed their appreciation for the performance by giving Michelle a long, hearty ovation, and Messersmith just shook his head, unsure of what to say following such a moving moment.

The night proceeded with a similar gravitas, each performance feeling more intimate and intense than the last. Additional highlights from the first set included Messersmith's cellist and piano player Dan Lawonn singing Death Cab's "Brothers on a Hotel Bed," Brian Tighe and Allison LaBonne of the Owls/Starfolk singing a duet on the Magnetic Field's "Papa Was a Rodeo," and Messersmith singing Lucinda Williams' "I Envy the Wind," a song he says he was introduced to by Dan Wilson, who told him to lay on the floor in the dark to absorb the song's full impact.

Before intermission, Messersmith performed his misheard song lyrics medley, which he released as a YouTube video earlier in the week ("I felt like I owed the internet at least this much," he joked). The comic relief was welcome after the somber tone of many of the songs, and Messersmith invited the audience to tweet him more suggestions for misheard lyrics during the break.

The second set was a steady stream of guests. Michelle came back to sing Bright Eyes' "First Day of My Life," and Chris Koza started his stint with a cover of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's All Right)" and brought out Aby Wolf for a mesmerizing, note-perfect take on "I Only Have Eyes For You," with Messersmith on piano.

I was a bit disappointed that Wolf wasn't given the chance to perform a song on her own -- she's easily one of the most gifted vocalists in the metro area -- but she shone brightly singing back-up vocals on Prince's "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" and Dessa's "The Chaconne," a song that should always have a string section behind it from here on out. Beautiful.

You know that phrase "next level shit" that Tumblr kids use to describe moments of transcendence? Well, Dessa was on some next level shit with her next song, which she introduced as "a song Leonard Cohen wrote about my ex-boyfriend." I'd heard her do an a capella rendition of "Hallelujah" a few times before, but Dessa's voice was in excellent shape on Saturday and listening to her cartwheel around the melodies and draw out a long, final note rippled with vibrato was just astounding.

Jeremy Messersmith's 'Works for Words' at the Fitzgerald, 4/9/11
Photos by Nate Ryan, courtesy of MPR

Just when I thought I could take no more, Messersmith came back to the center of the stage to sing Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees," followed by a stand-up-and-sing-along cover of Pulp's "Common People." Ridiculous.

All told, it was over two and a half hours of songs and it went by in the blink of an eye. Messersmith says he doesn't know if he'll attempt another MPR show anytime soon ("I haven't been that nervous about performing in a LONG time," he told me afterward), but I'm guessing the station will want him to come back for another show sooner rather than later.

Personal bias: I've gotten to know Messersmith over the past year or so (we spent a lot of time together when I was writing a cover story about him last spring), and I think he's just disgustingly talented.
The crowd: Current listeners.
Overheard Seen in the crowd: A girl excitedly doing jazz hands and bouncing up and down at the mention of Dan Wilson.

Set 1
Dillinger Eyes (Messersmith, original)
Strawberry Blonde (Messersmith, written by Ron Sexsmith)
Jolene (Messersmith, by Dolly Parton) 
Piazza, New York Catcher (Messersmith, by Belle and Sebastian)
Worried Shoes (Lucy Michelle, by Daniel Johnston)
Untitled by Lucy Michelle (Michelle)
A Girl, A Boy, and a Graveyard (Messersmith, original)
Brothers on a Hotel Bed (Dan Lawonn, by Death Cab for Cutie)
Kindness (Brian Tighe, original)
Papa Was a Rodeo (Brian Tighe, by the Magnetic Fields)
I Envy the Wind (Messesmith, by Lucinda Williams)
Misunderstood Medley (Messesmith)

Set 2
Organ Donor (Messesmith, original)
San Diego Serenade (Messesmith, by Tom Waits)
First Day of My Life (Michelle, by Bright Eyes)
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right (Koza, by Bob Dylan)
The Blackberry Moon (Koza, original)
I Only Have Eyes For You (Koza, Messesmith, and Aby Wolf, by Warren/Dubin)
I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man (Dessa, by Prince)
The Chaconne (Dessa, original)
Hallelujah (Dessa, by Leonard Cohen)
Fake Plastic Trees (Messersmith, by Radiohead)
Common People (Messersmith, by Pulp)

Lazy Bones (Messersmith, original)
Violet! (Messersmith, original)

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