No two songs by rapper singer Margret Wander, better known by her stage name, Dessa sound the same — and her sold-out show at the Black Cat on Nov. 10 proved just that. Her vocal skills and range of musical talents were on full display, and her rapport with the crowd kept the mood high throughout the show.
Chicago-based band MONAKR opened the sold-out show with a bang, first with its hit song “Wherever” then by literally busting a snare drum.
“We told you not to drum so loud, dude,” vocalist Matthew Santos jokingly scolded drummer Jonathan Marks, and then asked the audience, “Anyone bring an extra snare drum? Or some duct tape?”
Despite the resulting technical difficulty, the band made it through a six-song set, which included five of the band’s original songs and one ironic Justin Bieber cover. The band quickly assured the audience they would fix their drum in time for Dessa’s set.
“Oh, yeah,” band member Saam Hagshenas said. “We’re also Dessa’s band, so if you don’t like us, it’s going to be a long night.”
The indie music scene has nothing if not a sense of humor.
“How many of you were dragged here by a women’s studies major?” Dessa asked the crowd when she took the stage, which evoked laughter, but also a few raised hands. Dessa’s Washington, D.C. stop on a mostly sold-out tour was populated by fans, a few of whom she recognized from seeing them at shows going on 10 years and whom she greeted by name from the stage.
Based in Minneapolis, Dessa has been active as a solo artist since the release of her 2005 extended play, “False Hopes,” and as a member of the indie hip-hop collective Doomtree since it released its eponymous debut album in 2001.
Her work has become more high-profile in recent months — she recently contributed a cover of “Congratulations” to The Hamilton Mixtape and to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s benefit song for Puerto Rico, “Almost Like Praying” — but has been receiving accolades for her music since her first studio album.
Backed by opener MONAKR and joined by fellow Minneapolis-based singer Aby Wolf, Dessa performed an eclectic range of her music, starting with hit track “Matches to Paper Dolls” off of her 2010 debut album, “A Badly Broken Code.” Her second song of the night, “Children’s Work,” comes from the same album and describes her childhood relationship with her younger brother, a subject she jokingly referred to as “sibling rap.”
Dessa continued to jump around her repertoire, performing her newest single, “Good Grief,” then the fast-paced rap “Fighting Fish,” stopping before the latter to ask Wolf and MONAKR if they were prepared.
“Are you ready?” Wolf responded with Dessa’s same question
“Born ready,” Dessa replied.
Although different in tone, the songs are tied together by Dessa’s characteristic wordplay and sophisticated lyricism. In “Good Grief,” she raps, “Night falls, day breaks / time has a funny kind of violence.”
In addition to backing Dessa, Wolf performed a song of her own, “Alone.” The song’s title also elicited a few laughs, as Wolf announced it after Dessa stepped back and left Wolf by herself at the front of the stage.
A poet and essayist as well as a rapper with a bachelor’s in philosophy, Dessa is self-aware of her unconventional style. She introduced a performance of an unreleased song by saying, “This is my new radio single about Thomas Aquinas and determinism,” and followed it with “The Chaconne,” a song without a chorus and named for its baroque musical composition.
Ten songs and more than an hour into her performance, Dessa stepped into the audience to sing “Seamstress,” then followed it with the high-energy “Warsaw” and concluded with one of her better-known songs, “Call Off Your Ghost.” She kept her sense of humor throughout, at one point asking if anyone in the audience would share whiskey with her. Someone standing nearby handed her a can of beer instead.
“This is so warm!” Dessa said.
“I’ve been holding it.” the woman said.
Dessa shooed the audience off to get drinks after she performed “Call Off Your Ghost” — yelling “Come back in seven minutes for an encore”— then played standout single “Dixon’s Girl,” circling back to her earlier work to end the show.
A blend of rap and singing and of sharp wordplay and thoughtful subject matter, “Dixon’s Girl” was an appropriate endpoint to Dessa’s concert and encapsulation of her as an artist: brilliant, captivating and unapologetically herself.