Underneath strings of Christmas lights and vibrant murals that hang on the walls of KHOI Radio in downtown Ames, singer-songwriter Baby Dee performed a lively, intimate set in front of a small crowd perched on folding chairs and couches Sunday, Sept. 18.
With only her voice and an accordion, Dee’s hour-long set was a testament to her skills as a musician and her experience as a performer.
Much like the radio station itself, Dee’s set was intimate, yet part of something much larger. Her haunting, operatic voice paired perfectly with the dynamic, unmistakable sound of the unique instrument in her hands. Her energy was palpable, though she performed the whole set sitting down. The passion in her face was unmistakable as her pitch-perfect voice rang through the small room.
Fresh off a U.S. tour with experimental rock architects The Swans, this admittedly unusual performance was Dee’s 14th show in two weeks, an impressive schedule for any musician. Dee’s next adventure is a tour of Germany and Denmark.
Her time spent as both a music director for a Catholic church and her time as a circus performer, as well as her experience as a transgender woman, were clearly present in her music; her entertaining character was witty, but not overbearing and by no means premeditated.
“I am a person of extremes,” said Dee.
And that she is. Prefacing almost every number with a tongue in cheek, “Now, this next song's a little creepy,” Dee’s music, most of it based upon life experience and her family, was dark, but not depressing. Her music played like circus tunes performed on a church organ. Song’s like “The Robin’s Tiny Throat” and “The Big Bumble Bees” tackled heavy subject matter, such as abuse and neglect, with light hearted lyrics and a dissonant, heavy sound. Song’s like “Calvary” played like a beautiful, haunting church hymn.
Song after song, I found myself not only engrossed in the music, most of which I was hearing for the first time, but pleasantly surprised at the power and volume of her performance. With only her voice and an accordion, Dee filled the room with sound. It was the silence, however, that acted as an instrument of its own. With carefully composed rest and dynamics, Dee’s music was as poetic as it was powerful.
And the crowd must have shared the sentiment. Dee was called back to the stage after taking a bow twice for encores and received three separate standing ovations. Dee responded to the crowds cheers with a joke about questions you hope you’ll never be asked.
“And one of those questions," Dee said. "Is can you play another song on the accordion?”
But if Dee was truly at a loss for content, it did not come through in her performance. Both encores were as expertly played and performed as the rest of the show.
“The songs always change,” Dee said when I asked her about her diverse performance career. “But I always come back to some things.”
Dee, who is an expert multi-instrumentalist, said that the harp is one of those things.
“Right now, I haven’t played the harp in three years.” said Dee, who is classically trained in the instrument. “But that’s happened before.”
After such a powerful performance, let’s hope that Ames is one of those things as well.
Dee's performance will be broadcasted on KHOI Community Radio 81.9 FM Saturday, Sept. 24th at 11 p.m.