Before seeing Dessa at St. Catherine’s O’Shaughnessy Auditorium, I worried my review would come off completely subjective. Okay, I don’t believe any piece of writing can be truly objective, and I’m usually not concerned about getting personal. But this is different.
According to play-logging website Last.fm, Dessa is my most-played artist of all time (Doomtree also makes the top five). I’ve used Castor, The Twin to fall asleep on so many plane and bus rides that I can’t hear it without feeling jet lagged, mentally cramped in a tiny seat again, with my head on my arms on my tray table. At least four of my friendships were built on the fact that we both loved Dessa’s music.
But I’d never seen her in concert. That is, I’d seen her with Doomtree many times (see: first show review and first artist interview. Later on, I’d write up Soundset 2016 and Doomtree Zoo). But I’d never seen a Dessa show: the kind where she calls all the shots and plays the quieter songs, slipping poetry (last night, she read “Tits on the Moon”) between tracks.
Last night, she opened with my three favorite songs. Under the lights at St. Catherine’s O’Shaughnessy Auditorium on Friday, she and her band (drummer Joey Van Phillips, guitarist/keyboardist Dustin Kiel, bassist/guitarist Sean McPherson, and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Aby Wolf) kicked off her biggest hometown show of the year with “Matches To Paper Dolls” (the highly recommended Audiotree Live arrangement), “Children’s Work,” and “The Lamb.”
Musically, Dessa sounds best with a live band, so it was great to see her backed by her crew. Aby Wolf took over for a song, playing “Any Shape” from her Call the Rocks EP, and Jake Pavek (A Piano In Every Home, Taj Raj) and Matthew Santos joined the band for several songs, including “Sound The Bells” and “Dear Marie.” Wolf, Pavek, and Santos assisted on “Quinine,” but the band stayed offstage for that one.
The crowd stayed in their seats in the purple auditorium, which contradicted all of the jumping and dancing I learned from Doomtree, but it did suit the variety-show vibe. Right after MONAKR wrapped up their short, synthy opening set, Dessa popped out from behind the curtain and said she wanted to cut down on intermission time, proceeding to read the first part of a story. If celebrities can insure certain parts of their body, she wondered, could she insure what’s made her career? Not legs, like Taylor Swift; not crossed eyes, like Ben Turpin — but heartbreak. The minor chords.
She’d return to the story twice more that night, putting on fake glasses before she’d tell the next installment. The crowd laughed a lot, but by the end, Dessa wasn’t the only one crying. “I’ve moved to the Upper East Side,” she read aloud. She’s finally getting over an ex, and she feels “sensitized to other people’s sorrows.” She is doing good.
Dessa is one of my role models. The way she owns ambition made me stand tall as a teenager; I can’t remember how many times I’ve screamed “Fighting Fish” in my car. The bridge in “Call Off Your Ghost” guts me, and “Kites” soundtracked an almost-broken heart.
Last night, the favorites kept coming, and I realized what I should have already known: this review could never be objective. I had the time of my life.
Writer Cecilia Johnson and photographer Emmet Kowler swapped Dessa stories the first day they met.
Matches to Paper Dolls
Into the Spin → The Man I Knew
Sound The Bells
Call Off Your Ghost
Any Shape (Aby Wolf song)
The Chaconne (feat. Matthew Santos)