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BENT NIGHTS Vic Mensa; Lavender Country
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Vern Hester

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When I met rapper Vic Mensa eight years ago, I asked him the silliest question imaginable: "Why do you look so pissed in your photos?" That was when he was in the performing arts high school collective Kids These Days and long before he dropped "16 Shots," a controversially inflammatory and unequivocally blunt single addressing the shooting death of Laquan McDonald by police officer Jason Van Dyke ( and the video includes police footage of the shooting ).

Following a steady path to widespread recognition—including several collaborations with Kanye West and Damon Albarn, spearheading the SaveMoney collective, releasing two well-received EPs ( The Manuscript and Theres's A Lot Going On, both on Roc Records ), snatching a Grammy nomination and working at the forefront of the anti-police brutality movement—he has emerged as one of the South Side's favorite sons. He dropped his debut full-length ( The Autobiography, on Roc Records ) earlier this year and is set to open for Jay-Z's massive stadium tour later this fall. Oh, yeah: He also played a free pop-up show at Thalia Hall on Sept. 26 that was packed to the rafters.

The Autobiography is, as expected, rich with rage and confrontation, but it also comes with a wealth of hidden gems that reveal Mensa as a stunning composer and rapper at any age. ( He is 24. ) The uncharacteristic "Heaven on Earth" reaches for the stars but the break-up ballad "Cigarettes and Coffee" is lyrically dramatic and precise. ( "You were only 17, fallin' in love with everything ... except me," he croons and you'd have to be dead not to feel his hurt. ) On the far less serious "Rollin' Like a Stoner," Mensa has a trippy, goofy blast sending up rap-star excess. In the equally loopy video, a near zombie-fied Mensa stares at the camera lens blankly while singing, "I am a disaster, I don't need no recipe. Tried to be sober, that didn't work for me." Its not exactly like he didn't warn us when he barked, "F*ck you think, I'mma be some type of role model?" on the album closing rave-up "OMG."

After DJ Oreo blew the roof off of Thalia Hall, Mensa took all those happy party vibes and morphed them into something pretty dark with a blistering "16 Shots" as the opener. What followed was high-octane rap delivered with stunning anger and a brutal pace as Mensa kept leaping into the crowd, turning this "concert" into a heated though friendly confrontation. "U Mad," "OMG" and "Rage" were incendiary and they had a bruising gravity. These were songs about living in a still segregated Chicago by a young Chicago artist in front of a young Chicago audience and the fact that Mensa was expressing shared rage was inescapable. Still, Mensa avoided making his show a raging bitch fest by tucking in the heartfelt "Heaven On Earth" toward the second section of his show while rocking "Rollin' Like A Stoner" like the party anthem it is.

With so much reverential press on out activist Patrick Haggerty and his album Lavender Country ( Paradise of Bachelors Records )—hailed as the first gay country music album ever ( it was released in 1973 )—you would think he and it would be fossils. However, as evidenced by his recent sold-out show at The Hideout, you would be sorely mistaken. Still feisty and sassy at 72, Haggerty and a rebooted version of his band, Lavender Country, finally made their Chicago debut and did more then sing some old songs: He took his audience through a night of storytelling, history and mirth.

There was plenty of music, but the night belonged to Haggerty's stories about what it was like growing up poor and queer in rural Washington state and having the influence of a loving father who accepted and embraced him regardless of what others thought. One of his amusing tales had the sassy, teenaged Haggerty performing and singing in the local Catholic Church talent show in drag. His father's only quibble was that he sang with the accompaniment of a pianist rather than doing a full-on Liberace while accompanying himself.

As fun and interesting as his stories were, the fact that the music on Lavender Country is just as pungent as it was 40 years ago was astonishing. "Cryin' These Cocksucking Tears," which enjoys a history all its own, is a custom queer barroom weeper with more than a dash of bile—and Haggerty gave it his all. "Gay Bar Blues" evokes the sleaze and forced down-low guilt of the pre-Stonewall era while "I Can't Shake the Stranger Out of You" posits the age old gay battle between lust and intimacy. In a roundabout way, the way Haggerty sang them on this night, both songs slyly commented on the current trend toward phone apps and hook ups.

There was still a lot of fun to be had with a spirited reading of "Red Dress," a song he wrote commemorating his sister's divorce and a hard-swinging bop through the Patsy Cline chestnut "Walking After Midnight." ( "Patsy Cline didn't do no walking after midnight!!!," cracked Haggerty. ). Proving himself ever the romantic, he dedicated Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'" to his partner of 30 years, J.D.—and they two-stepped to the finish.

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