Dessa at First Avenue, 6/29/13

Categories: Concert Review
Photo by Erik Hess

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."

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.

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."

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