Chicago’s noise pop band Dehd interestingly enough played the first show of its Spring tour in Denver at the Bluebird Theater. Perhaps not so unusual since, apparently, singer/bassist Emily Kempf has been spending a bit of time in New Mexico of late. But this show was very Chicago-centric with another Windy City trio on the bill with darkwave industrial group Pixel Grip. Stylistically it would take some effort to find bands further apart. But both represented distinctly different side of a city known for bands with eclectic influences.
Pixel Grip’s Rita Lukea took the stage alone at the beginning of the show with just a microphone and backing tracks for the first song. And that would have been compelling enough for a whole set such was Lukea’s commanding presence as a singer. But when Tyler Ommen and Jonathon Freund came on to take up places on synths and drums the sonic signature became more saturated and the rhythms deeper and with such a rich low end that it reminded those in the know of a techno show at a warehouse somewhere at which the people holding the event bring in real gear. Lukea’s vocals remained strong but there was also a completely unaffected vulnerability in her performance that was powerful on its own, that coupled with an utterly sincere way of engaging with the audience that helped to make the music immediately and constantly accessible.
You can have listened to every Dehd record and not be prepared for the sustained bursts of joy the band exudes on stage. Often lumped into loose categories like post-punk, garage rock and surf rock, Dehd is all of those things but its spirited performance somehow incorporates a healthy, self-deprecating Midwestern sense of humor with songs that are a direct line to heartfelt emotion transmitted with great sincerity and enthusiasm to the audience. The presentation of the music is that of self-aware bravado infused with a startling vulnerability that strikes in unexpected moments in almost every song. In that way Dehd came off like a party band that gave up the uninspired hedonistic lyrics for something with more depth and soul.
Much of the joking from stage came from Kempf who said she was a Virgo at one point (which it turns out isn’t simply a joke) and asked the crowd where they were on the astrological spectrum, getting some humorous responses. And almost as a non-sequitur Kempf asked “Where have all the cowboys gone” and maybe that Paula Cole hit got teased by the rest of the band. The synergy of what seemed like a loose performance but which really wasn’t was a fascinating display of contrasts.
Throughout the show one couldn’t help but be impressed with how Dehd could stretch way out with the melodies and then come back together in tight dynamics with both Kempf and singer/guitarist Jason Balla throwing themselves bodily into the performance singing from their core while Eric McGrady, no slouch on performing with his entire body either, seemed like a tranquil and steady presence standing up and playing his small set of drums. He made it look easy but the music demands creative and imaginative percussion. But the force of the performance didn’t just come from that visceral intensity, it came in the moments when the songs went atmospheric and introspective and the vocal performances weren’t simply fiery and earthy, they evoked complex emotions with a disarming simplicity. The vocals on “Disappear” and “Dream On” are some of the best of the band’s impressive catalog and the latter surely a standout on the group’s forthcoming full-length Blue Skies (due out May 27, 2022 on Fat Possum), from which more than a couple of songs in the set were taken though there was plenty from Flower of Devotion, Water and earlier releases. Ending the encore with “Desire” seemed like an exclamation point on a set of all high points. If Dehd is right now a bit of an indie cult band the exuberance of its live shows and how so many of its songs linger with you should propel it wider circles before too much longer.