5 words and sinus infections. Two extraordinarily memorable elements in capacity crowd leg of the 'Every Never Is Now' Chicago tour date on Thursday night. If you added the flowers, Ronald Reagan solo, and thumb wars, an individual with no preconceived notions of the night would not have guessed a rap show was behind those dividing doors between the restaurant and the venue.
5 words. You say 'em, he'll take 'em and craft a freestyle on the spot, no pauses, no hesitation. Hailing from Jacksonville, Florida, Astronautalis seized the stage like a snake oil salesman with the insanity of Robert Knepper with "The Wondersmith and His Sons." Commanding a spitfire delivery, he rarely took his eyes off everyone albeit to sip tea steeped in whisky or to hand the mic to Ronald Reagan plastered to his MacBook. The showman pulled back the curtain behind his persona just so much you'd still thought he was mildly mad. Introducing the secret to climbing the corporate ladder through a pencil, Moleskin notepad and a camera phone, the extortion endorsing "Mr. Blessington's Imperialist Plot" was given a new life unlike on the Eyeball Records' album Pomegranate. With the closing ballad "My Dinner with Andy", he stole that bar of standards, took it in his "eco-friendly diamond helicopter fueled by baby seal eyes" and raised it higher than anyone had expected.
"Kites" had barely ended before Dessa Darling was thrown off guard when a fan offered her bouquet of red carnations. Dessa, the sole female member of the Doomtree collective, is a slam poet-turned-rapper with a bite and a sweet side best expressed during Thursday's rendition of "551." Contrary to last fall when Doomtree rolled into Reggie's, she stole the spotlight-even during the rendition of The Chaconne when Matthew Santos of Lupe Fiasco's "Superstar" fame came to help out. The hauntingly beautiful, downtempo duet stilled the room as she and Santos sang back and forth until the pitch perfect "Now the bells toll…" ending. She contained herself only for those capsules of songs, dancing and hopping excitedly otherwise even through secret meetings to get kleenex to cast out a sinus infection. While the Spanish spiced "Sadie Hawkins" was a clear audience favorite, the highlight was mixing "Matches to Paper Dolls" into a catchy, upbeat version of the choral, violin-plucked "Into the Spin." If you had not heard Dessa prior to the evening, you probably are still talking about her.
Plain Ole Bill did double-duty Thursday night, covering the tables for both Dessa and Stef, aka P.O.S. (Pretty Okay Spaghetti, according to Astronautalis). A nominee for last year's MTVu Best Performer Woodie, Stef simply has fun on stage. Right after opener "Half-Cocked Concepts," with its staggered start, he quickly gave shout outs to his mother, Grace, who had traveled down to Chicago. As opposed to most tours centered around new albums, P.O.S. evenly spread the setlist throughout his entire catalog. Singles "Never Better" and "Optimist" made their rounds, yet were drowned out by "Drumroll (We're All Thirsty)"'s ravenous crowd callbacks and the silencing storytelling of "Been Afraid."
Despite having to follow the darling Dessa and the straight-jacket worthy Astronautalis, his set proved the strongest. He brought back Dessa for their dueling Dots & Dashes and Low Light Low Life, complete with back-to-back rap stances and dancing. Unexpectedly, P.O.S. then lowered his mic as his mother asked for and received another song from Dessa, "The Crow." With her soon backstage, Stef called forth Astronautalis for a growling rendition of "Hand Made Hand Gun" as if the lights cut out and the Bottom Lounge became a thriller flick.
You could say the evening was capped with "Gimme Gimme Gunshots" and "Purexed," but it didn't. It ended traditionally as Stef threw the gauntlet down to anyone and everyone in thumb wars-both on stage and in the crowd. If you never went to a rap show and have notions of what occurs, P.O.S. will prove you wrong. For an hour after the speakers were silence, all of the rappers were in with the crowd and at the tables, autographing, hugging, taking photos, and thumb warring. Whoever says musicians are distant and inaccessible has yet to see Dessa, P.O.S., or the unstoppable upcoming hip hop scene. Dessa even got flowers for it.