Toward the end of her set, Kimya Dawson brought Aesop Rock back to the stage for one of the most powerful performances in Denver this year. Although "Walk Like Thunder" has been available as a free download for close to five months now in advance of Thunder Thighs release this October and so we all knew what to expect, the depth of imagery and levels of emotional resonance that Dawson and Aesop Rock were able to express likely didn't leave a dry eye in the house -- unless folks just didn't happen to be listening, for whatever reason.
The power of the song hit unexpectedly because, especially in Kimya's vocal section, it tapped into universal truths of modern human experience and articulated it so well that you really felt like she was singing about you, your life, the lives of people you love and who have touched your life and been an important part of it -- substituting a few details. It was one of the high points of the show and one of the highest points of any show in recent years, regardless of musical style or genre. In fact, seeing this song live felt like it was the kind of song you've been waiting your whole life to hear but didn't know it.
Before the Dawson and Aesop Rock took the stage, Mike Deez played some interesting electro pop and hip-hop. Deez left the stage just as some of the most insipid pop hits of the '80s came on, which had everyone singing along to stuff like "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey and "Here I Go Again" by Whitesnake.
But this was all quickly forgotten once Dawson took the stage with just her blue, acoustic guitar, Aesop Rock following her. The duo performed the first two songs together beginning with "Delicate Cycle" and immediately, it was striking how well the cadence and flow of each artist matched the other. It was uncanny how perfect it was; Aesop was hard-edged and smart and Kimya was also smart, and, more conventionally, musical. Both delivered lines that cut straight to the heart of the matter with a good combination of honesty and compassion.
When Aesop left the stage, Dawson told us that her next song sounded a lot like the last and that all of her songs sound a little bit alike because she's a folk singer. Maybe her songs do sound something alike, but when she started up "Singing Machine," her presence and delivery were absolutely riveting. Like the best of folk singers, Dawson has discovered her own voice as a lyricist, and in doing so, she has found a way to weave stories together with a meaning for those stories that go beyond the specific circumstances of her life. And when the elements aren't autobiographical, they are grounded in experiences everyone has had. Dawson is incredibly honest with herself and this gave each of her songs an emotional resonance that would have made the material incredibly compelling aside from Dawson's obvious charisma as a performer.
Dawson performed a handful of cuts from Thunder Thighs, as well as some from Alphabutt in the first half of her set and it was interesting to see how, after all these years, Dawson has not shed the endearing awkwardness that has made her such an interesting performer. She doesn't bother with a persona and lets her vulnerability and authenticity speak for itself, which lets you let your own guard down, allowing you to take in her unique poetry.
In this way, Dawson is able to be fearless while being completely open to the fear and the hurt that's part of life. Later in the show, Dawson talked about how it's part of life that things can kind of be unpleasant, but that it can also often incredible, amazing and healthy to admit and be open about acknowledging your worst times and that no one should have to be embarrassed about asking for help when they need it. The crowd clearly loved Dawson -- really, it would be hard to imagine a crowd that didn't -- and cheered wildly when she made statements like this throughout the show.
At one point, she related a story about one of the first times she came through Denver and played at the Breakdown Book Collective. Specifically, she remembered a seven-year-old girl who was there that would be now be seventeen. She probably has these stories about many cities, but in recounting such a story to a crowd in the hundreds and her ability to make it endearing to probably everyone is a gift. Before that story Dawson performed "Being Cool" and afterward, the seemingly Celtic-flavored "The Beer."
After Aesop Rock came back on stage to perform "Walk Like Thunder," he stayed to perform another of the duo's songs, but not the last of the night. Dawson closed her portion of the show with another track from her new album, in which she fully embraces being in her late thirties and expresses how glad she is to be alive, and in doing so, she reminded us that you need not be over the hill in music once you're out of your early thirties. Dawson proved herself not only to be more relevant than ever but also that she's reached a kind of another turning point, and an exciting one at that, in her career as a songwriter with this new batch of songs.
Click through to read about Aesop Rock's set.
Opening with what sounded like "Citronella," Rob Sonic and Aesop Rock commanded, "When I say kill, y'all say 'television!'" And for the rest of the eighteen-song set (just three songs longer than Kimya Dawson's own), the trio of Hail Mary Mallon performed extensively from its debut release, Are You Gonna Eat That?, as well as some deep cuts from the Aesop Rock catalogue. In fact, at one point, Aesop jokingly asked the crowd if any of them had been into Aesop Rock beyond six months ago.
A number of those older songs came from 2007's None Shall Pass, including "Coffee," the title track, and "Citronella." And while Rob Sonic didn't necessarily contribute to each song in the original form, or the highly skilled DJ Big Wiz, for this show the interplay between the three wasn't just tight, it flowed so well with such confidence and power you couldn't help but be impressed with the chemistry these guys have with each other. On another level, it was as if Rob and Aesop were engaged in some kind of weird comedy routine throughout the show between songs, that is if more comedians were able to be funny with a stream-of-consciousness approach to their material.
Aesop performed throughout like a magician or circus barker with his myriad gestures, facial expressions and movements, because while he's been at this a while and had plenty of practice, it just seemed to be his natural reaction to the songs and the content and that made his performance consistently interesting to watch. When he and Rob switched off mid-sentence at times, it was often hard to tell who was rapping in the moment if you looked away for a moment, because they were so in synch with each other both lyrically and tonally. But rather than rendering everything sounding the same, the uninterrupted flow kept the momentum building and cycling down throughout the show with a subtle dynamism.
During "The Poconos" and "Meter Feeder," it was obvious that Aesop and Sonic knew they were dealing with inherently humorous material, and it showed. And for "Breakdance Beach" Aesop even did some breakdance moves, telling us afterward that he and Sonic had played the song for DJ Abilities after writing it, and recalled Abilities telling them that it sounded like a Missy Elliott song.
Just after halfway through the show, Aesop and Sonic acknowledged that the DJ doesn't get the attention he or she deserves, especially one as great as Big Wiz, at which point Wiz launched into a tour de force of turntablism that included samples from NWA, alongside samples of other classic rap groups of that era, with beats and scratches thrown into the mix with skill and creativity.
Toward the end of the set, Dawson was called back to the stage, and as she sauntered toward the mike, Aesop announced, "That's a sassy walk. She just comes up drinking tea like she doesn't give a fuck." Then the two, with Wiz's help, performed "The Aquarium." Aesop told us the songs weren't done yet, but they decided to perform them anyway. Before "Bats," the last number the two performed together, Aesop told us the song was about the late Michael "Eyedea" Larsen, a friend and respected figure in independent hip-hop and underground music in Minneapolis, who died in late 2010.
While the song was about Eyedea, the lyrics seemed to range beyond and into broader territory. It was, frankly, the kind of song that could serve as a rallying cry to a generation to use its abilities, gifts, talents and skills to make a change in the world. But in the hands of Dawson and Aesop Rock, it never seemed preachy; rather the words seemed to speak directly to your heart and inspire you because of the simple, yet powerful truths, expressed there with a deeply poetic resonance. If that album had been available after the show, it probably would have sold out.
The night ended with Hail Mary Mallon doing a rousing version of "None Shall Pass," and even people who have seen Aesop Rock over the years said that this show was one of his best performances. With Dawson on the bill, it was easily one of the best and most moving shows in Denver this year so far.
Personal Bias: I've long thought Aesop Rock is one of the most important hip-hop artists going. Random Detail: The vinyl version of Kimya Dawson's children's album Alphabutt was available at the show. By the Way: You can download "Walk Like Thunder" for free.