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Dessa Charms, Conquers City Winery

By Katie Karpowicz in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 14, 2014 4:30PM

Photo: Katie Karpowicz/Chicagoist

It's hard to come up with hip hop artists whose live performances possess the style and poise that make them suitable for the more refined, concert-dining setup of City Winery. At the top of that short list is Minneapolis rapper and Doomtree member Dessa, who brings a healthy amount of street-smart grit to the table but also excels at creating pop music. She seems just as comfortable slamming a shot of whiskey as she does swirling a glass of white wine. Watching Dessa bring a reserved, chianti-sipping crowd to life Saturday night increased our respect for her even further.

First, singer Aby Wolf (also Dessa's backup singer) took the stage. There's no denying the beauty in Ms. Wolf's voice. Her analog laptop beats and heavy vocal melodies, however, lacked our desired energy level. Her charm never wavered though and a yet to be released track got our heads bobbing at a faster tempo, giving us hope that someday we might be hearing Aby Wolf's name mentioned more often.

Dessa, on the other hand, needs no improvement. Armed with a live band whose sound perfectly filled City Winery's intimate room, she launched into "The Lamb" with a confidence that never let up. Her ability to seamlessly adapt onstage to a obscure hip hop show setting, sound issues or whatever other else might present itself is what makes her such an enticing performer.

"This is the fanciest place we've ever played," Dessa remarked at one point during the set. She definitely didn't appear to feel ostracized, however. One of the downsides of concert dining, at times, are all the distractions. Saturday night's crowd never dropped eye contact with the artist.

"Haunting" is a word that's thrown about way too often in music criticism but it's one that is actually perfectly appropriate for Dessa's music, at least her efforts on Parts of Speech. The songs embody eerie spaces empty except for memories that won't leave us. Songs like "Call Off Your Ghost," "Annabelle" and "The Man I Knew" were absolutely arresting.

Older songs like "Alibi" and "Mineshaft II" gave Dessa a chance to show off her more aggressively fun side. At one point, she took that confidence to another level, leaping off the stage and singing face-to-face with fans midway through their entrees. What should have been an awkward moment had us smiling wide and feeling the energy on an even deeper level.

So, thank you, Dessa. Thank you for a weekend well spent and for making us come around on a venue we've been hesitant about in the past.