It’s commonly thought that it’s difficult to draw a crowd on a Monday night, but Dessa regularly defies the laws of music physics. Even before the first opening act, the eminent queen of literacy rap had magnetically attracted a cross-cultural crowd of hip-hop heads, poetry fiends and people who simply recognize outstanding music to fill the spacious room of the Firebird.
Local emcee Eric Farlow, known as Farout, started the show backed by St. Louis’ beloved DJ Mahf, who was armed with an expert display of scratches and other additions to the mix. The combo approached the show without a sales agenda, selecting tracks from across Farlow’s quickly expanding discography. Typically known for active and energetic sets, Farout’s set had a more technical focus than usual, demonstrating a skill and level of intelligence largely unmatched by his contemporaries -- pardon, perhaps, the headliner. He didn’t fail to dance around the stage per usual, but this night Farlow energized the minds of the crowd as much as their bodies.
In a change of style, Aby Wolf and Her Claws held down the second set. She was delayed by an issue with the vocal effects, but refused to be discouraged and ended up performing a relatively “dry” set, using only a little reverb from the house soundboard.
Like our headliner, Aby Wolf’s music seems to have a style of her own, mixing beautifully toned, ethereal lyrics with largely down-tempo electronic production. While the rest of the show featured the linguistic expertise of celebrated wordsmiths, Wolf’s focus was on sound and mood, sometimes filling the room with drawn out oohs, yeahs and other sounds that defy transcription. She invited the crowd to “just chill out,” as opposed to throwing our hands in the air and bouncing along, and delivered an ideal palate cleansing middle set.
While a select few got their first Dessa experience of the night with some girl time in the ladies’ room, the rest of the audience eagerly crowded the stage, waiting for the unparalleled blend of poetry, melody and rhythm that would soon follow. Born Margaret Wander, Dessa had performed at the Firebird almost exactly one year before with Doomtree, the celebrated hip-hop crew from the Twin Cities, but that show offered only a taste of her talent and style. This time, armed with a live band featuring Sean McPherson on stand-up and electric bass, Joey Van Phillips on drums, Dustin Kyle on guitar and keyboard, and Aby Wolf on back-up vocals and other accenting instrumentation, she took advantage of her time in the spotlight to exhibit her individual prowess.
Dessa took the stage with an almost aggressive energy, carrying a presence honed by the intensity of touring with Doomtree. This particularly stood out after Aby Wolf’s placid demeanor and instantly energized the crowd. In addition to an astonishing musical presence, Dessa connected with the crowd with a few aside comments and brief anecdotes, often humorous and appreciative of the quirks of life. She didn’t fear showing her quirky side herself as she stretched to see if she could reach the ceiling at one point, and bounced whimsically off the stage to grab a stool to do things “singer-songwriter style” at another.
This combined with a couple trips into the audience, including a final duet with Aby Wolf, to definitively destroy the fourth wall and connect with everyone more personally.
Throughout her budding discography, she’s constantly re-examined and evolved many of her songs, and this live band set was another fine continuation of that process -- delivering familiar songs with slightly new takes. The highlight of this process was the backing to “Sadie Hawkins,” which was full with breakdowns, rests and mood changes.
This also led up to the inclusion of a handful of new and unreleased songs from an album due to be released this summer. In addition to the band, the addition of Aby Wolf’s vocals proved the idyllic compliment to Dessa’s own vocal aptitude.
It was a matchless experience for everybody at the Firebird, on and off the stage, as the traveling crew delivered far more than simply a gig on the way to SXSW. Dessa’s love for words and music is infectious, and everybody went home with her voice endlessly resonating in their heads.
Set List for Dessa (italics indicate new song)
The Man I Knew
Matches to Paper Dolls
Call Off Your Ghosts
Into the Spin
I'm Going Down (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Sadie Hawkins (Doomtree)
Sound of Bells
all photos by Wil Wander.