I arrived earlier than expected to the venue. The venue was vegan bar and all-round hipster hangout, Stereo Cafe Bar located on Renfield Lane, Glasgow. As I sat at the bar having the ritual pre-gig pint, I started to distinguish the difference between the vegan bar patronage and the people heading to the basement to see Dessa perform. When fellow Southsiders Thomas and Tiernan arrived, we stocked up on drinks and made our way down the dark, dingy staircase to what I can best describe as a performance area not dissimilar to the famous battle rap scenes in Eminem’s biopic 8 Mile. Despite the immediate failings of upstairs, the mood shifts completely on entering the basement venue. Since the unfortunate closing of Glasgow’s world famous Arches, Stereo has become a new favourite pilgrimage for small gig attendees in recent years.
Upon hearing who the support act was, singer-songwriter Matthew Santos, I jokingly suggested that “He has his work cut out tonight to impress me.” The reason being, when I was a lot younger and a lot more susceptible to peer-pressure, I was goaded into performing Lupe Fiasco’s ‘Superstar’ during a karaoke night in front of my then girlfriend’s entire family (resulting in a monumental amount of embarrassment and scarred memory tissue that I still carry to this day). Matthew Santos sung the hook on this song. I admittedly – and ignorantly – knew nothing of Santos’ body of work outside supplying vocals to Lupe, rising star Saba, and of course, Dessa. As Matthew Santos began his set, the room was filling up. At this point I noticed that tonight’s audience was largely a female presence, which for a hip-hop show, was refreshing. The usual toxic male masculinity was absent, so I knew no one was catching an unfortunate elbow or flailing arm to the face [Note: El-P six years previous at the same venue]. Matthew Santos worked his way through his solo catalogue moving back and forth on stage from piano to acoustic guitar and back again. For a brief period, Santos discussed how he recently played the Icelandic Songwriters Hall of Fame and upon visiting the surrounding area, grew an affinity for their traditional blankets – although, not their price tag. He had heard Scotland had “Some good blankets to offer”, and asked for a recommendation. There wasn’t much response. It seemed like the ‘blanket crowd’ were not in tonight. As he continued his set, Dessa walked past me blending in with the crowd without being hassled, enjoying her touring partner’s performance. Santos finished his set with a rendition of the late great Leonard Cohen’s classic ‘Hallelujah’, in the process, attaining deserved recognition from the crowd.
Dessa, now on stage with Santos playing piano and Aby Wolf on percussion, the trio opened with ‘Good Grief’ from her latest LP Chime. The industrious nature of this song procured the audience’s attention without delay. ‘Boy Crazy’, also taken from Chime superseded the opener. With the intimacy of the venue, the melancholic chord progression of the song, coupled with the mesmerising backing vocals, I was brought to a standstill; arrested in a moment of harmonious exaltation. I was in awe of this trio on stage. Another song that translated just as effectively live was ‘The Chaconne’, featuring Matthew Santos from Dessa’s debut LP A Badly Broken Code. The stripped back acoustic version of this is the reason for attending such events. This was a well coordinated, heartfelt performance of a song that one would not imagine could be taken a further rung up the ladder of emotional input.
After a few more songs, Dessa informed the audience that she has to quickly “Head off to top up her whiskey and take a puff of her inhaler.” At this point, Dessa and Matthew Santos made for the bar whilst percussionist, Aby Wolf, was left on stage. She introduced herself and said she was going to perform “A hot song about gender fluidity…” The song is called ‘Any Shape’, taken from her 2016 EP Call the Rocks. Aby has similar cadences to Dessa in her voice, and with her vehement drumming over the mellow electronic backing track, she received the applause of the night thus far upon finishing. This appeared to be a rabbit out of the hat. No one was expecting the sudden change in pace which continued upon the duo’s return.
Dessa displayed her skills as an all-round performer with “A quick poetry joint.” “The moon’s gravity is one sixth of ours… My tits would be awesome there…” Dessa proclaimed upon reciting notes from her phone. This was met with applause and laughter as she continued. The final sentence of this intriguingly entertaining ‘quick poetry joint’ ended with the line “…five out of six.” which segued seamlessly in to the song of the same name. Shortly afterwards, Dessa again briefly adjusted the pace. As well as a hip hop veteran, she is also a published author. I had not yet read her latest work published earlier this year, My Own Devices; True Stories from the Road on Music, Science and Senseless Love, although Thomas had already recommended this pre-show [I have since purchased the audiobook read by Dessa herself and cannot recommend it enough for fans and newcomers alike]. Dessa turned the intimacy meter up a notch by picking up a copy of said book and stepping out in to the crowd. She asked for illumination from the crowd’s smartphones to assist her reading an excerpt. The audience was instructed by the Minneapolis-native that if they want to, not to applaud, rather to click your fingers as “It’s not as harsh and won’t spoil the moment.” After an empowered reading from My Own Devices… that saw Dessa walk around the space created by the crowd, passionately directing words and sentences at anyone and everyone in attendance, a sea of clicking fingers rang out.
After impressive performances of ‘Call Off Your Ghost’ and ‘Warsaw’ (arguably the two best performances of the night albeit at contrasting ends of the ‘hype-scale’) the show was ready for it’s encore. The Glasgow crowd gave out their obligatory call for “one more tune.” Dessa returned to stage and thanked the onlookers with unquestionable sincerity. “Thank you for the merch. We feel the brief Twitter exchanges. Our efforts as artists and our lives as people are made by this.” The ethereal ‘Fire Drills’ commenced and Dessa delivered one of the most powerful exclamations of the year with contemptuous zeal. A moment that brought the curtain down on a night of distinguished live music.