Anyone who tells you they learned Dessa's deepest, innermost thoughts at her pair of concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra this past weekend at a packed Orchestra Hall isn't just talking in clichés.
The Minneapolis rapper and singer -- apparently deciding one giant creative leap wasn't enough for one very high-profile show -- turned her debut concerts with the orchestra into something of a twofer affair that at times also felt like an Off-Broadway one-woman play and a Neil deGrasse Tyson lecture, the latter facet enhanced by a PowerPoint-style visual presentation. The show-within-a-show was based around the science of heartache as it relates to the brain, and it involved real-life probing of Dessa’s own cerebral matter. We even got to see X-ray-type imagery of her brain. Yeah, neato!
At first, though, there was just the music, as ornate and dramatic and as you’d expect Dessa’s songs to sound with a full orchestra. It was hard to tell songs like the openers “The Crow” and “Matches to Paper Dolls” started in bedrooms and basements with good ol' fashioned hip-hop beats and not in some loftier composer’s workspace. All of her cohorts from the Doomtree crew -- many of whom had a heavy hand in creating those tunes -- were in attendance over the weekend. Paper Tiger came from New York, and Sims flew in last-minute from his tour. Other frequent collaborators joined her on stage, too, including regular bandmates Aby Wolf, Joey Van Phillips and Sean McPherson and co-vocalists Ashley DuBose, Cameron Kinghorn and Matthew Santos.
The big job of adapting the music for the orchestra with Dessa was left to local arranger and studio wiz Andy Thompson, known for his work with Jeremy Messersmith and Dan Wilson. Their reworkings ranged from a minimally made-over "Dixon's Girl," which sounded like something that might have fit the orchestra’s jazz series, to ambitiously orchestrated versions of “Annabelle” and “Good Grief,” which sounded like the climactic moment of a dramatic movie score.
“I thought on Night 2, all the nerves would be worked out,” Dessa said toward the beginning of Saturday’s show, understatedly confessing, “This feels real different from First Ave or the Triple Rock.” In a swap from Night 1, when Dessa got to conduct the orchestra herself, she handed the microphone to Live at Orchestra Hall conductor Sarah Hicks, who cut loose rhyming “Hicks” with “click” and “stick” (let’s not quite call it rapping). For the orchestra's ticket subscribers, Dessa advised, "I just want you to know this is not representative of most rap shows. It's very niche."
Driving that point home after a soaring “The Chaconne,” Dessa introduced the subplot of the concert toward the end of the first half: She talked about a letter she sent to University of Minnesota brainiacs, in which she stated she wanted to bare all to try to understand why she still had a deep hurt following a breakup with an ex-boyfriend. During several different breaks between songs, she further detailed her work with the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, undergoing MRIs and weekend-long controlled studies trying to pinpoint where the heartache was in her brain.
“Now that I knew where the love is, all I had to do was take it out,” she summarized at one point, a great set-up for “Call off Your Ghost.”
The show-within-a-show could have been a messy prospect, just like adding clarinets and timpani to hip-hop songs could have fallen limp, but it all came off coherently and powerfully. Her scientific look at heartache seriously sounds like a great set-up for a lecture series or book (and we recently relearned from the New York Times how well Dessa can write).
At least within the music realm, though, we know Dessa has conquered another field. The orchestra, too, deserves kudos for this adventurous collaboration. Following last summer’s similarly playful concerts with the New Standards – which proved equally strong in ticket sales – we can presumably expect the orchestra to continue its pairings with stars of the Twin Cities club scene. I’m pulling for Marijuana Deathsquads next.