Of the seemingly endless horde of emerging male singer/songwriters who present something new by refashioning something old ( among them Hozier, Eli "Paperboy" Reed, Sam Smith, and Leon Bridges ), Parker Millsap is clearly the most startling.
Born and raised in Oklahoma in the Pentecostal Church, his take on Americana roots music is not only distinctive for its sound but for the omnipotent presence of God Almighty. His take on the good Lord is hardly swathed in old-time religion ( for or against ) but as a starting point to view reality and comment with equal parts humor, cynicism and wit. In short, Millsap's music has something rich and intoxicating for believers and non-believers alike.
The first time I heard him was at A Taste of Chicago two years ago, when he was the opener for Emmylou Harris. Playing in front of a sparse crowd of 20 during a rainstorm, I was shocked by the fluid, articulate voice that came out of his youthful face. I also got sideswiped by his bracing wit when he gently snarled, "Mary Mary quite contrary ... how'd you get your eyes so scary?" during his song "Quite Contrary." Blanketed in all that twang, Millsap not only displayed a spectacular cloud-touching voice but a low=key humor that stayed with me ever since.
Now we have the new The Very Last Day ( Okrahoma Records ) which delivers big time on what I heard that rainy Saturday. This new full-length is loaded with innumerable pleasures and one big sucker punch. "Hands Up" and "Hades Pleads" are rollicking, caffeinated rockers sharpened with acoustic bite ( courtesy of accompanists Michael Rose on stand-up bass and Daniel Foulks on fiddle ) with Millsap flipping the words off his tongue like tiny pebbles. "The Very Last Day," a matter-of-fact projection of what the Apocalypse will really be like rather then what The Bible promises works as low key comedy. ( Millsap binge-watched The Walking Dead while composing the album. ) Even a weighted slog through the blues standard "You Gotta Move" is refitted with Millsap's pristine and unpredictable vocal making it otherworldly, spiritual, and sanctified.
The Very Last Day would be a great album with just those recordings but the heartfelt and enthralling "Heaven Sent" takes it in an unexpected direction. The song is a love letter from a young gay man to his preacher father questioning conditional love not only from a parent but God himself. Lyrics include "I just want to make you proud of the kind of love I've found/But you say it's not allowed/ you say it's a sin."
Delivered with simplicity, directness and without anger, Millsap's protagonist ( Millsap is not gay ) is befuddled by this personal rejection which brings with it a spiritual rejection as well. The recording is heartbreaking and, though it was not his intention, Millsap's scenario speaks to Alan Turing, Bayard Rustin, Leelah Alcorn and any number of Black youth who have been kicked out of their homes and forced to live on the streets because of who they love. Coming from a straight God-fearing man who sings roots music from the heart of Bible country, "Heaven Sent" is a shockand a welcome one.
At the close of his book, Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division ( Cleis Press, 2009 ), bandleader Jon Ginoli made the point that his seminal band may have become obsolete. As one of only two distinctly queer punk bands to leave a lasting legacy ( the other being Tim Cain's Boys' Entrance ), Pansy Division was responsible for a whole wave of queer musical expression which has gone on for decades. Ironically Boys' Entrance and Pansy Division hit town this past weekend for rare shows to answer that "past it" question in the flesh.
For Pansy Division, with all four band members living on opposite sides of the country with full careers and lives, it was impossible to mount a full tour for the release of there upcoming CD which will be out in the fall. Lucky for Illinois that the Pansies could play a two-night stand here, starting with an SRO gig at Schuba's on May 20. ( They also played Springfield the next night. )
After not seeing them in a decade, I had forgotten how much fun it was to be in a packed room and yell along to "James Bondage," "That's So Gay," "Bunnies" and "Bad Boyfriend." I also forgot just how funny and feral bassist Christopher Freeman can be when he sells a song for far more then it is worth ( in or out of his black sequined evening gown ), or how cute drummer Luis Illades still is. Or how fun it is to watch Ginoli hop around like an overexcited Boy Scout and crack jokes with Freeman. ( I have to think of them as the Abbott and Costello of the queer universe. )
Still, the night had surprises, starting with new member Joel Reader ( on guitar/vocals ), who jokingly "came out" as the only "breeder" in the bunch. Reader ran with the joke all night, giving the Pansies an even broader humor while ripping into the new "Some of My Best Friends" and a particularly muddy and appealing take on Pet Shop Boys' "It's A Sin." I did expect "Jac U Off" would turn up as a tribute to Prince, but I did not expect the polish, hooks and romanticism of the new "Kiss Me at Midnight."
By the look of this show, the notion of this band being obsolete is obviously a crock. Hopefully, in the future, Pansy Division will be able to at least tour occasionally since it was clear this night that the band was having just as much, if not more fun than the adoring crowd.