P.O.S., Dessa, and Astronautalis at Turner Hall
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With a fiercely DIY attitude and wordplay skills that dominate almost every other name in underground hip-hop, Minneapolis native P.O.S. rolled into Turner Hall on Saturday with a handful of labelmates—representing his hometown crew, the unstoppable force known as Doomtree—and energy to spare. Last time he was in town, he faced a quizzical crowd who were surely curious as to why the hell he was sharing a bill with indie rock stalwarts Cursive; this time, he had the benefit of headlining a hip-hop show.
Jacksonville-cum-Seattleite Astronautalis opened up accompanied only by his MacBook, spitting urgent, impish rhymes through a gravelly, Jameson-drenched larynx that conjured Tom Waits and belied his boyish looks. After coaxing the table-and-chair assembly in the back to get a little closer ("Sorry, there is no dinner theater here tonight"), he eased the tone even more by referring to Pabst Blue Ribbon as "God's fucking sweat"— presumably not in a pejorative manner. Imagine cathartic tales of troublemaking and woe shouted at you by a scrawnier Henry Rollins over beats that range from rock to rap and back again, and you have Astronautalis. A Scribble Jam veteran, he closed out his fraction of the evening with the age-old tradition of a long form, audience-inspired freestyle.
Battling a lingering sinus infection, Dessa swung between ruthless MC, honey-voiced soul sister, and the-show-must-go-on sick soldier. Her onstage request for an inhaler was kindly and quickly fulfilled by P.O.S., and she made sure to note that the tour was unofficially sponsored by both DayQuil and NyQuil. Ably backed by turntablist Plain Ole Bill, her set drew mostly from this year's flawless A Badly Broken Code, with a few heartrending numbers from 2005's False Hopes EP. For her last song, Dessa started off with the opening verse of Freedy Johnston's woefully underappreciated 1994 hit single, "Bad Reputation," before tumbling into a cascade of her trademark spoken word and finishing up with an a capella morsel of the eternally coverable "Hallelujah."
Puffs of illicit smoke immediately filled the air as soon as P.O.S. took to the stage, with fists and voices raised in unison for every song that followed. A duet with Dessa, "Low Light Low Life," showcased both performers' talents as MCs, lyricists, and all-around artists with an understated chorus and turbulent lyrics. "Been Afraid" was prefaced by the ominous warning, "This is a true story about you or someone you know—in the worst way ever." Barraging the crowd with a mix of tracks spanning from his 2004 debut Ipecac Neat to last year's Never Better, every aggressive, shout-along anthem was met with more enthusiasm than any Doomtree performer had ever seen in Milwaukee. The front row bounced, screamed, and flailed, and even a few of the folks sitting in the back were inspired to get up and dance.
Predictably, finding more than a handful of women in the room was a futile exercise—the target market of angry 16-to-24-year old dudes filled the floor, backpacks strapped on tight and PBR tallboys held high—but when P.O.S. came out to wrap up the night, random high-fives were exchanged, much brew was enthusiastically spilled, and the lovably diminutive mosh pit knew no gender, race, color, or creed.