It’s difficult these days to escape the reach of the creative juggernaut known as Dessa. Maybe you’ve heard of her from her work with the Twin cities-based rap collective Doomtree, or her just as extensive solo career, or her contribution to the massively successful The Hamilton Mixtape, or her work with “Welcome to Night Vale” and “I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats,” or her forthcoming book “My Own Devices: True Stories from the road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love.” Regardless, from all these avenues, fans came from all over Philly to witness “Chime” live.
Monakr warmed up the crowd with a set of high octane pop electronica. I’ll admit I was apprehensive at the sight of laptops onstage, but was quickly assuaged by their suave stage presence. The trio, built around singer/keyboardist Matthew Santos, included drummer Jonathan Marks, and Saam Hagshenas riding the sample pad. Hagshenas worked the pad like none I’ve seen before, angling the board out, less like a keyboard and more closely resembling the way one might hold a guitar or bass, which was more fitting for his extensive bridge solos. Santos brought smooth vocals, and Marks remained cool under the dynamic drum parts.
Dessa entered shortly later, accompanied by Monakr as backing band, busting right into “Good Grief.” It was instantly clear how much of her personality she brings to the stage, commanding yet approachable, her rhymes laced with power poses and a charming smirk. She handles hooks just as well as her smart lines. She moved the mic stand out of the way after the first song, to open up the stage for her slick moves, punctuating each bar with her hands, jabbing, then crouching and creeping through the stage.
Her presence is electric as well, which you can tell from the reaction she draws from the crowd, emitting both shrieks and the occasional stray compliment from a husky voice in the audience. Between the pop-centric choruses on “Boy Crazy” and “Half Of You,” and the fast raps casually dropping references to Thomas Aquinas and neuroscience, there’s something in Dessa’s music for everyone.
Besides playing through most of “Chime,” she also found time in an hour and a half set for some deeper cuts, including “Call Off Your Ghost,” “Warsaw,” and “Skeleton Key” from her last album Parts Of Speech, and “Dixon’s Girl,” “Matches to Paper Dolls,” and “Seamstress” from her 2010 album A Badly Broken Code. Regardless of whichever she performed, each word was met with impeccable repetition from the crowd, demonstrating the loyalty of the fanbase (many could recite her faster lyrics better than some actors can recite Shakespeare).
After bringing it from extra hype down to some slower and more sincere tracks, reading through a poem she wrote on the female body and taking baths, then spending some time in the pit surrounded by phone lights, and bringing the energy back up with “Fire Drills,” Dessa exited the stage briefly before returning for an encore. Certainly verbose but not one to linger, she performed a stunning rendition of “Fighting Fish” from Parts of Speech, then exited once again, managing to cram more emotion and raw talent in an hour and a half set than many can fit into three hours.