Eric Taylor and Parker Millsap, CSPS Hall, Cedar Rapids, IA

By
Cedar Rapids, IA ( July 12, 2014)

“I used to drive a 1963 Volkswagen Van. That itself is suspect…”

These words from a story by Eric Taylor give a glimpse into both the history of his life and his sense of humor. This story went on to tell of how movie star Sterling Hayden helped the young Eric repair a broken clutch cable in said van. Eric Taylor’s songs, and stories, are rich examples of a life filled with both experience and observation of the world.

Eric’s style is simple, unadorned and unapologetic Americana/blues. Sharing the bill with Parker Millsap, Eric took the stage first and wove a tapestry of rich and funny stories with insightful-and inciting-songs. They’re songs of uncomplicated people dealing with complicated issues as best they can, but some of the subjects and lyrics are not for the faint of heart. Eric pulls no punches in calling out injustices and inequities he sees in the world, whether at the level of the whole of society, or the relationship between two people.

One of the songs I really liked was “Reno”, off Eric’s latest album “Studio 10”. It sets to music the true story of a gambler who wins at everything but his own life and relationships. I found myself wondering whether the true aspect of the song was Eric’s own life, or that of a close friend.

My favorite song of the evening, “Cover These Bones” (an ode to how Native Americans have been treated) was not written by Eric but by Tim Grimm. After the show, I found a video of Tim performing the song and can honestly say that while Eric humbly gave credit due to Tim, his version of the song is markedly different in tempo and even overall feel. It had Eric Taylor written all over it.

So, what exactly does that mean? I had the pleasure of talking with Eric after the show. He’s a very down to earth, unpretentious guy with whom I felt an immediate connection, as though we’d been friends for a while already. I think the key to his songs is that, as he put it during our talk, he’s reached an age where he doesn’t really care what other people think of him or his songs. Yet, unlike some younger “artistes” who present that attitude as a pretense, with Eric it’s simply the fact that he’s seen and experienced a lot of things, knows his own heart and mind, and if someone doesn’t like what he has to say, so what.

The result in concert is an engaging mix of hilarious stories, most of which display Eric’s Puckish humor and his tendency to wink at life, and himself, with songs that reach out and grab the listener by the heart and mind and demand you listen carefully to what you are hearing. An example of his humor is that in the middle of one song, he paused and pointed out that on that particular chord, his middle finger was pointing straight up. He then told a story of how his grandmother once asked him why he had to play that particular chord with his finger so prominently displaying “the Bird”. “Because it hurts if I play it with my finger down”, was the matter of fact answer.

That’s what Eric Taylor’s music, and his performance, were like: you may not be comfortable with what his songs have to say, but he’s not going to bend that middle finger just to make someone else feel more comfortable. The truth he sings doesn’t allow for that.

Eric’s set was over much more quickly than expected. He left the stage and after a short break, Parker Millsap and his band performed.

I first had the pleasure of seeing Parker perform live last November here in Cedar Rapids at CSPS Hall. As with many in the audience, I’d never heard of him before, and I wondered what to expect as this skinny, baby-faced lad walked on stage with his guitar and harmonica holder. I listened to his slow, bluesy harmonica and slide guitar intro to “You Gotta Move”.

Nothing special so far.

Then he began to sing.

I joined in the collective gasp that such a powerful, gutsy voice could come forth from a guy who looked like he should still be taking orders working part time at McDonald’s. At the end of that concert, I and many others realized Parker Millsap was ordained by God to carry the mantle of Southern blues and Americana carried by the likes of Ry Cooder and John Hiatt.

This time around, I knew what to expect. He again led his set with “You Gotta Move”. I smiled as the first timers in the audience had the same reaction I’d had last year.

At this point in time, I could simply conclude this review by saying,

“Holy S***, Parker Millsap has gotten even BETTER!”

But, I realize some people reading this review haven’t heard him perform yet and that might leave those unfortunates scratching their heads and wondering what the fuss is about.

The fuss is that Parker Millsap, at an age when many performers are still trying to find their “voice” and personal style, sounds like he’s been around for years. Maybe it was growing up in a Pentecostal Church in Oklahoma. Maybe it’s just the right combination of DNA. Maybe some moonless night at a rural crossroads he made a pact with Old Scratch like the legend regarding Robert Johnson. Whatever it is, Parker has the right combination of musical talent, songwriting skills, stage presence and boyish good looks to make him a bona fide star before long.

As with any good songwriter, Parker writes about what he has experienced and seen with utter honesty, without taking himself too seriously. He joked about a dysfunctional dream as he introduced “The Villain”, a touching song about how he doesn’t want to be the cause of pain for his partner, admitting he is the cause of the dysfunction in the relationship.

Another gripping song is “Old Time Religion”. Obviously drawing on his observations within the Pentecostal Church, it’s a solid blues number that tells of how a man’s faith can go too far, resulting in tragedy.

Perhaps the most powerful song of the evening was “Heaven Sent”, a recently penned song about a gay young man struggling to come out to his father, a pastor. It’s a story all too common, and Parker relates it with a maturity and sensitivity that, I think, would make all but the most hard core homophobe reconsider his or her attitude toward a gay person.

Not that all of Parker’s songs are somber or overly serious. He has fun with his music, and presents some wry humor in the midst of social commentary, such as the nursery rhyme themed meth dealers of “Quite Contrary”, or the subtle humor in “Truck Stop Gospel”.

Eric Taylor and Parker Millsap on the same bill was, well, the shiznits. I have never before in my life used that word, but for what I had the pleasure to experience Saturday night, it just seems to fit.

 

 

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