Dessa, Minneapolis’ multi-hyphenate MC, took the stage at a sold out First Avenue on Friday night, April 6, 2018. No stranger to the legendary room, and having previously held down three consecutive nights with the rap collective Doomtree, she paused early on to admit her nervousness about headlining a solo show. “I always hoped to get to a point where I wasn’t nervous anymore. Now I’ve realized you just get used to being nervous.” That brief aside was the only hint of hesitance, as she tore through a confident and wide-ranging set that nodded to her early successes but embraced a new path.
The setlist was dominated by her new release, Chime, including nine of the 11 tracks, with earlier favorites like “Seamstress” and “Dixon’s Girl” interspersed.
Dessa’s diverse intellectual pursuits were on full display in her songwriting and stage banter. “This is a song about determinism,” the former philosophy major quipped, before jumping into “Velodrome,” with its references to medieval scholasticism. “I don’t believe / My will’s quite free / I’m half machine / At least half steam / Aquinas, call on me / How many angels on the / Head of your pin?”
The emotional center of the night was “Fire Drills,” a powerful reflection on the #MeToo movement and the marginalization of women in the music industry. “We don’t say, ‘go out and be brave’ / Nah, we say, ‘Be careful, stay safe’… Like the big win is not a day without an incident / I beg to differ with it / I think a woman’s worth / I think that she deserves / A better line of work / Than motherfucking vigilance.”
Lighter moments punctuated the occasionally ominous tone with the intermittent embrace of pop. Acknowledging the new direction in her music, Dessa confessed, “Telling a rap producer you like pop is kind of like having a coming out conversation.” The audience was entirely on board for the genre-hopping, with songs like “Boy Crazy” and “Half of You” providing cathartic sing-alongs.
A powerful version of “The Chaconne” brought the evening to a close after two encores. The audience lingered, shouting for more as Dessa basked in hometown adulation before embarking on a lengthy international tour.
“Call off your Ghost”
“Half of You”
“5 out of 6”
Andy Witchger (@andywitchger) is a teacher, naturalist, photographer and concert junkie from Minneapolis. You can find his work in City Pages, The Current, Fast Company and on his mom’s refrigerator.